Harvard Women Reflect on the School’s New Focus of Fostering Female Success

iStock_000014186302XSmallBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

The New York Times recently highlighted Harvard Business School’s (HBS) attempt to create gender parity in the classroom, changing a culture considered to be the breeding ground for corporate leaders globally.

When Harvard’s first female president, Drew Gilpin Faust, appointed the new dean, Nitin Nohria, the dean vowed to do more than his predecessors when it came to remaking gender relations at the school.

HBS’ approach was radical, changing how students spoke, studied, and socialized. The transformation also went deep, with administrators installing stenographers in the classroom to guard against biased grading and providing private coaching for untenured female professors.

Clearly, HBS’ makeover doesn’t mean it is now – or will be – perfect. The school’s gender makeover has resulted in a number of unintended consequences and issues. For example, the grade gap disappeared so quickly, it’s unclear what its true source was. Also, there are demands for more women on the faculty, which is a request deans are struggling to fulfill. There has also been pushback, mostly from young men who believe the makeover to be “intrusive social engineering.”

It wasn’t until August of 1962 that Harvard Business School accepted its first female students and in the fifty-one-years since, women have made considerable gains in academia. Today, three women earn a college degree for every two men and women are earning more graduate degrees than men. Admittedly, Harvard has been a hotbed for progress: the school’s current 900-plus first-year students are 40 percent women – HBS’ highest percentage ever. HBS’ student body is also far more diverse than it was 50 years ago, not just in gender, but in race, ethnicity, social class, and nationality. HBS also recently admitted its first transgender student.

In finance, however, women and minorities have made very little progress, though Harvard seems unafraid of tackling these difficult topics. A recent conference at HBS entitled “Gender and Work: Challenging Conventional Wisdom,” addressed the on-the-ground reality of women leaders 50 years after the first women were admitted to the School’s two-year MBA Program.

Harvard has been more than forthcoming in detailing the many ways the school was failing to retain female students, but how challenging was the atmosphere for female students before the makeover and what do female grads think of the school’s effort to foster female success?

Previously, Gender Parity ‘Wasn’t a Priority’

Kim Keating is founder and manager of the consulting firm Keating Advisors and a board member of, the organization founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Keating attended HBS with Sandberg, where she graduated in 1995 from a class that was 28 percent women and 14 percent minority. At the time, Keating says, gender equity wasn’t a priority for the school, but the school made a “blossoming effort” to support women and minorities.

“It takes a lot of courage to address gender equity head-on and I applaud Dean Nohria, the administration, and the faculty for taking the lead on this issue,” Keating says. “I think the need for the makeover is really clear when you look at the data. The positive results from one year of the ‘makeover’ were pretty remarkable. When I was at HBS, it was definitely a culture where men excelled because they were more vocal in class. After one year of focused efforts to improve the environment, women’s performance improved and the number of honors graduates increased significantly.”

It remains unclear whether Harvard’s new practices will also mean ramping up efforts to retain women of color, who are the most underrepresented in both business schools and the upper ranks of corporate America. Daria Burke, founder and CEO of Black MBA Women, writes that alongside discrimination, women of color struggle with subconsciously opting out, gaining access to informal networks and visibility to executive management, and developing an authentic voice.

This is something that was touched on at HBS’ recent “Gender and Work” conference. Robert Livingston, an Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, presented findings on how race affects societal perceptions of working women, focusing primarily on its implications for women in leadership roles and examining why there aren’t more black women leaders. According to Livingston, research shows that unlike white women, black women aren’t penalized for dominant behavior. One research Livingston cited said black women are allowed to be dominant when it comes to getting things done, but not when it comes to getting ahead. In other words, they are not allowed to be power-seeking.

Based on her experiences, Keating says women of color also have to overcome a lot of assumptions before they are viewed as equally capable as their male counterparts.

“For example, when I was at HBS, we would be assigned to teams for certain class projects. Inevitably, someone would automatically assume that I wasn’t going to be the numbers person. They had no idea I had a degree in finance, worked on Wall Street, or was a CFO for a non-profit. My ability spoke for itself; I just had to fight a little harder to earn that respect,” Keating says.

What Male Students Stand to Gain

Sharon Meers, a Harvard and NYU graduate who is head of sales and business development for X.commerce, eBay’s e-commerce platform, was equally impressed by the school’s makeover. Formerly, Meers was the managing director at Goldman Sachs, where she worked for 16-years and was co-chair of the Women’s Network in the investment management division.

“The most impressive fact about the HBS experiment was how quickly impact was felt,” Meers said. “I think that efforts like this make sense both in universities and the workplace. The goal in both cases is to develop all the talent you can in each student or worker. If you know you have a system that undermines the performance of one group for no benefit to anyone else, you should fix that system. There are similar findings in schools of computer science and engineering – that with small tweaks to the teaching approach and social dynamics, you can get brilliant women to stay and thrive.”

Meers attended Harvard as an undergraduate and says its business school is markedly different because a significant number of HBS’ male students have spent time in deeply gendered environments, including Wall Street and the US military.

With all of this focus on female students, there’s little recognition of what the male students stand to gain from HBS’ new approach. As Meers points out, male students at HBS were given an opportunity to hone skills they will need to do a better job at retaining top talent than their predecessors have.

“An executive at a large biotech company recently told me, ‘People don’t leave companies; they leave bad managers,’” Meers said. “Learning about gender and how it can color perceptions, HBS students will be better able to attract and retain top talent, half of which is female.”

Tearing Down Barriers at Every Level

Robin Ely, Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community at Harvard Business School, played a major role in HBS’ recent transformation. For years, her work has focused on the barriers women face when trying to progress in organizations, with one of these barriers being masculine identities.

In a recent piece for Harvard Business Review, Ely discusses these barriers, which she refers to as “second-generation bias” because though deliberate exclusion from opportunity is now a rarity, women continue to face subtle cultural barriers that are often part of an organization’s DNA, which of course puts women at a disadvantage.

This is yet another reason why HBS’ recent makeover is so crucial. So many argue that addressing gender parity at the corporate level is too late because of the second generation bias Ely writes about, but these cultural barriers inherent in corporate America’s DNA can eventually be torn down by fresh, new talent that has been groomed to embrace gender parity and who’ve been taught the importance of fostering female success.

Keating is of the opinion that it’s never too late to fight for gender parity and that it should be addressed at every level.

“I think that it is safe to say that addressing the issue from every angle is essential, including corporate, government policymakers, and individuals,” Keating says. “It’s not just about those big steps taken, announced loudly through the media, but those small steps taken every day too. It all contributes to seeing a person for what they’re made of – whether it’s an unsuspected talent for Finance or quick mind – instead of what they look like.”