Check out this article about the Harvard Business School’s two-year old (so far) scheme to close the gender gap in terms of student grades and participation in class. It’s been a huge success, and it also appears to have increased students’ overall satisfaction with their experience at HBS. (Also, if you don’t already know, you’ll learn about what a “search fund” is. Sounds pretty scammy and potentially a kind of pyramid scheme to me–I’m not really clear as to where our HBS grads are adding any value whatsoever, but you be the judge.)
[HBS '13] 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 fell behind. Attracting and retaining female professors was a losing battle; from 2006 to 2007, a third of the female junior faculty left.
Some students, like Sheryl Sandberg, class of ’95, the Facebook executive and author of “Lean In,” sailed through. Yet many Wall Street-hardened women confided that Harvard was worse than any trading floor, with first-year students divided into sections that took all their classes together and often developed the overheated dynamics of reality shows. 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). Alcohol-soaked social events could be worse.
But in 2010, Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first female president, appointed a new dean 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 private coaching — for some, after every class — for untenured female professors, and even departed from the hallowed case-study method.
And, it worked! At least, it worked in terms of what HBS could do to reshape its students’ experiences. In the end, while they closed the gender gap with respect to men’s and women’s grades increased women’s representation in the top 5% of the class (their honored Baker Scholars), women HBS grads were accepting jobs with lower pay and prestige than their male peers. Many of the women felt themselves or experienced pressure to enhance both their social/dating capital as well as their intellectual capital:
This was the lopsided situation that women in business school were facing: in intellectual prestige, they were pulling even with or outpacing male peers, but they were not “touching the money,” as Nori Gerardo Lietz, a real estate private equity investor and faculty member, put it. A few alumnae had founded promising start-ups like Rent the Runway, an evening wear rental service, but when it came to reaping big financial rewards, most women were barely in the game.
In the end, the architects of these changes feel much less optimistic about changing faculty culture:
As Ms. Frei reviewed her tapes at night, making notes as she went along, she looked for ways to instill that confidence. The women, who plainly wanted to be liked, sometimes failed to assert their authority — say, by not calling out a student who arrived late. But when they were challenged, they turned too tough, responding defensively (“Where did you get that?”).
Ms. Frei urged them to project warmth and high expectations at the same time, to avoid trying to bolster their credibility with soliloquies about their own research. “I think the class might be a little too much about you, and not enough about the students,” she would tell them the next day.
By the end of the semester, the teaching scores of the women had improved so much that she thought they were a mistake. One professor had shot to a 6 from a 4. Yet all the attention, along with other efforts to support female faculty, made no immediate impact on the numbers of female teachers. So few women were coming to teach at the school that evening out the numbers seemed almost impossible.
Isn’t that always the case in academia? Even in the face of good intentions, we find it so much more difficult (if not impossible) to reform our own working conditions. There’s always plenty of will and administrative (as well as political) muscle when it comes to changing things we want to change about or on behalf of our students, not so much when it comes to facing the reality of our own workplaces.
An aside: I guess I was a little surprised that student evaluation numbers appear to be such a big deal at HBS, when any faculty member knows that they can be ignored or used however the tenured faculty want to use them. (That is, why should the Dean coach women faculty to get better scores from the students instead of retraining the faculty in the appropriate or inappropriate uses of teaching evaluations, if her goal is to not let women’s teaching get in the way of their tenure? Also: since when does teaching count for tenure so much at a place like HBS that that’s the best use of one’s time and attention?) But, I suppose that that’s the distorting effect of being a member of a faculty for a school that charges $50,000/yr. for tuition and still has to turn thousands of perfectly qualified people away at the door. Adult students who clear that kind of hurdle doubtless have a lot more to say about the faculty than your average first-year or sophomore student at a woebegone aggie or directional university.
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