At Harvard, an experiment in gender studies

  • Article by: JODI KANTOR
  • New York Times
  • September 7, 2013 - 7:03 PM


When the members of the Harvard Business School class of 2013 gathered in May to celebrate the end of their studies, there was little visible evidence of the experiment they had undergone for the last two years. As they stood amid the brick buildings named after businessmen from Morgan to Bloomberg, the 905 graduates were united into one genderless mass.

But during that week’s festivities, the Class Day speaker, a standout female student, alluded to “the frustrations of a group of people who feel ignored.” Others grumbled that another speechmaker, a former chief executive of a company in steep decline, was invited only because she was a woman. At a reception, a male student in tennis whites blurted out, as his friends laughed, that much of what had occurred at the school had “been a painful experience.”

He and his classmates had been unwitting guinea pigs in what would have once sounded like a far-fetched feminist fantasy: What if Harvard Business School gave itself a gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success?

The country’s premier business training ground was trying to solve a seemingly intractable problem. Year after year, women who had arrived with the same test scores and grades as men had fallen behind. Attracting and retaining female professors was a losing battle.

Many Wall Street-hardened women confided that Harvard was worse than any trading floor. Some male students, many with finance backgrounds, commandeered classroom discussions and hazed female students and younger faculty members, and openly ruminated on whom they would “kill, sleep with or marry” (in cruder terms).

But in 2010, Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first female president, appointed a new dean — Nitin Nohria — who pledged to do far more than his predecessors to remake gender relations at the business school. He and his team tried to change how students spoke, studied and socialized. The administrators installed stenographers in the classroom to guard against biased grading, provided secret coaching for untenured female professors and even departed from the hallowed case-study method.

The dean’s ambitions extended far beyond campus. The school saw itself as the standard-bearer for American business.

Turning around its record on women, the new administrators assured themselves, could have an untold impact at other business schools, at companies populated by Harvard alumni and in the Fortune 500, where only 21 chief executives are women.

The institution would become a laboratory for studying how women speak in group settings, the links between romantic relationships and professional status, and the use of everyday measurement tools to reduce bias.

“We have to lead the way, and then lead the world in doing it,” said Frances Frei, her words suggesting the school’s sense of mission but also its self-regard.

By graduation, the school had become a markedly better place for female students, according to interviews with more than 70 professors, administrators and students, who cited more women participating in class, record numbers of women winning academic awards and a much-improved environment.

During graduation week, the venerated George F. Baker Scholar Luncheon listed women as almost 40 percent of the honorees.

One of the Baker scholars was Brooke Boyarsky, a Texan known as the classroom truth-teller, who was chosen to address the gathering.

“I entered HBS as a truly ‘untraditional applicant’: morbidly obese,” she said, speaking on the theme of finding the courage to make necessary but painful changes.

“Courage is a brand new HBS professor, younger than some of her students, teaching her very first class on her very first day,” she said. “Courage is one woman” — who reported a groping episode — “who wakes the entire school up to the fact that gender relations still have a long way to go.”

And, she continued, she had lost more than 100 pounds during her final year. “Courage was then me battling the urge to be defensive … and taking a hard, honest look within myself to figure out what had prevented change,” she said.

Even before she finished, her phone was buzzing with e-mails and texts from classmates. She was the girl everyone wished they had gotten to know better.

She had closed the two-year experiment by making the best possible case for it.

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