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Harvard Tries to Teach MBAs Gender Manners

Sometimes alpha males, who intend to impress, just look a little silly, to their peers as well as to faculty.

Many people sent me a link to the New York Times story on this year’s “experiment” at Harvard Business School:  conscious, formal steps were taken to try and change the gender environment of the MBA program.

Congratulations to Dean Nitin Nohria for having the courage to face a problem that I believe occurs at all business schools, but goes largely unremarked and certainly unaddressed.  I also think it is important to acknowledge the success that HBS achieved against this intransigent problem, even on the first try:  women began speaking up in class, the gender gap in grades evaporated, the number of women winning awards sky-rocketed, and the overall environment improved.  This record suggests the program was smartly designed and that it addressed the real causes of a real problem. Credit goes to the administrators who delivered the program and definitely a nod of appreciation should go to the faculty, who agreed to participate.

Going to business school is a little like joining the military.  Everywhere, the students and teachers are overwhelmingly men.  B-Schools seem to attract a disproportionate number of “alpha males” and there is something about the MBA mystique that makes these guys think they have a license to act out.  Being back in a college environment seems to put some into a second adolescence: grown people start doing things like rating their classmates’ sex appeal on Facebook.  It all begins to smell like a locker room.

Yet most of these folks were normal adults before arriving at school; they have virtually all been out working for a while and nearly all of them know better.   So, I think it is especially important that the Harvard program didn’t just focus on trying to resocialize the MBAs.  Instead, the Harvard Business School considered how their own conditions and practices might contribute to a negative gender environment. Case study teaching, something HBS is especially proud of, was not exempted from scrutiny.  And that’s good because case teaching is particularly problematic.  The students are graded on participation.  The males are extremely competitive.  They raise their hands more often, and it is hard not to call on them because of their aggressive attitudes.  They can be cruelly dismissive of their female classmate’s contributions, often not really listening to what the women have said.  The females just get quieter and quieter.

The Harvard program dealt with the problem by coaching the females about putting their hands WAY up, but also giving feedback to the faculty so they could see how their own behavior was contributing to the disabling setting and how their own biases were expressed in who they called on and how they evaluated comments.

Business school faculties do tend to be populated with rather conservative males, who are often themselves not the most socially adept people.  (Though I must admit that most of my colleagues here at Oxford are pretty progressive and actually pretty cool.) There are very few women on most business school faculties (even Oxford has only six females out of a faculty of more than 60).  Qualified women are hard to find at all in some areas and there is a really high attrition rate across the board.  Women faculty leave for a variety of reasons, but these are often traceable to unfair practices in faculty assignments, support, and evaluation.  The gender situation in the classroom can make an MBA program a terrifying place for a young woman to try and teach.  Harvard quite rightly provided coaching for young female professors–but they also acknowledged that there were two sides to the problem by dealing with student behavior and faculty bias as well. In general, though, I was quite pleased by the emphasis in this story on the importance of changing the gender mix among the faculty.  You can “teach” students to respect women all you want, but if you don’t walk the walk. . .

I often get the sense that the males are constantly looking over their shoulder for the next competitor they may have to thrash. They are just always on their guard. I feel sorry for them, but, hey, the rest of us get caught in the fallout from this primate behavior.

The poisonous little study groups that most B Schools insist on are often a source of tension, too.  In some programs, the students are assigned to the groups, with the women, always a minority, carefully parsed out, one to each.  So, the females end up isolated and marginalized. I have been told by many students that the men often won’t listen respectfully to the women during group sessions, but will make them do all the work. There won’t be enough females in any one group to push back.  As a result of this practice, the women don’t get to know each other, so it often takes them a term before they can muster any solidarity.

I think a key factor in the Harvard success is the open admission there was an institutional problem.  So the women didn’t have to spend their first term, sitting alone, thinking to themselves: “Am I crazy or is the testosterone level in here toxic?” Recognition of the problem was already out in the open and labelled negatively, so no one individual had to take the risk of standing up alone to speak out.  I have observed that the first female MBA to say “enough” usually has to put up with a lot of grief, even if the rest of her class eventually comes around to her view (which they often do).

The more typical response is to deal with female student complaints as if they were individual problems, even when the same issues crop up in a predictable pattern year after year. A woman who is being harassed by her classmates may be “supported” by a kind listener, but those who taunt her will very seldom be confronted. Or, sometimes, there will be inspirational and motivational “training” events for the women–which implies that any problems are due to deficits in the females rather than biases and bad behavior among the males.  I admire the Harvard program for going beyond the window dressing that passes for reform in other business schools (and companies).

My own experience suggests that the problematic behavior is so subtle in the beginning of an MBA program that the women at first doubt their own judgment as to whether they should complain.  They don’t want to overreact, but they are offended by, for instance, the tone someone takes when speaking to them in class. Very often, a large number of the males are also offended, but are completely flummoxed as to what they should do. When there is no outward expression of disapproval, the aggressive party takes that as permission and gets worse.  The situation deteriorates until many, male and female, are extremely unhappy.  The whole time, the only people who are utterly unaware of how offensive the situation has become are the perpetrators.

I am sure there are students at Harvard who feel they didn’t deserve to be put through this gender re-training. But when I read one student in the New York Times complaining that Harvard’s resocializing efforts treated him like a child, I couldn’t help but think he probably needed that level of reprogramming.  The ones who don’t “get it” really don’t get it.  Most of the rest of the students, male and female, usually have 21st century attitudes and very much prefer to work in a friendly environment.

Some of the folks who complain about being re-socialized have behaved as if they were raised by wolves.

Perhaps the most important thing, though, about this Harvard “experiment” is that it demonstrated something many people still don’t want to accept: that the small number of women and their relatively lower achievements in business schools can be improved dramatically by changing the environment–which tells us that the problem is the environment, not the women. (Let me emphasize again that everybody in the B School world has this problem.  It is not unique to HBS.)

Our own students start the new year in a few weeks.  I hope they all see the press about this HBS “experiment.”  And I hope it makes them just a tiny bit more careful about how they treat each other.  I wish the faculty, too, would see this report and resolve to try to defuse and balance the inequality in their classrooms. I would love to see my own school tackle this issue in a more proactive way.  More than anything, I hope this coverage reassures the females to trust their judgment and to reach out, lock arms, and go through this experience together.



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