Gender or Social Gap: What’s the Real Issue at HBS?

The front page story on gender equity at Harvard Business School published in Sunday’s New York Times has caused quite a commotion among business school students, faculty, applicants, and the public at large.

The article explores in depth some of the issues we’ve heard before: there’s a dearth of tenured female professors, female students are often less assertive in class, b-school life revolves heavily around alcohol and partying, etc.

It also sheds light on efforts to achieve more gender equity that we haven’t heard about previously, such as the recent inclusion of stenographers in the classroom to guard against biased grading; hand-raising coaching for female students; and new grading software tools that let professors instantly check their calling and marking patterns by gender.

Readers may remember that HBS celebrated the 50th anniversary of admitting women to the two-year MBA program this past spring, and several articles at the time reported that despite the notable milestone, many inequalities still persist.

But what has really some ruffled feathers are the social elements discussed in the article—things like Section X, a secret society made up of über wealthy, mostly international, and mostly male students; or the reported incidents of sexual harassment; or how female students frequently scale back on class participation in order to protect their “social capital” in the dating scene.

While the article is certainly an eye-opener on many fronts, we’ve seen at least two rebuttals published in the HBS student news outlet The Harbus that paint a different picture of campus life. In “It Will Be OK”, second-years Becky Cooper Nadis and Alana Hedlund assure first-year students that the campus environment is much more inclusive for women and people of differing socio-economic backgrounds than the NY Times article would leave readers to believe.

Second-year student Eric Lonstein offers another version of the “Culture at HBS” and believes Times writer Jodi Kantor should have looked beyond the sensationalist extremes of bad behavior because, he says, “the majority of people I know at HBS are thoughtful, caring, courageous, inclusive, and remarkably intelligent leaders.”

Is the problem solely gender? Or is it really more a social or class divide, as Kantor suggests in a companion article. And the problem isn’t limited to HBS; this week we’ve also seen an article quoting a Stanford GSB professor who says “The Boozy MBA Party Culture Needs to Change.” Bloomberg Businessweek, meanwhile, asks “When Did Business School Become All About the Parties?” And US News chimes in with the opinion that “Harvard Business School Must Improve Student Culture” and should take a page from Yale School of Management when it comes to valuing intellectual curiosity over status and material goods.

The debate over the accuracy of the entire article will no doubt continue, but it’s worth celebrating the fact that at least some of the measures initiated with the HBS Class of 2013 to improve gender equity have delivered on their promise.



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