Harvard Business School Isn’t an Island of Bro Culture: Our Whole Economy Needs a Gender-Culture Shift

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Commentary Law and Policy

Harvard Business School Isn’t an Island of Bro Culture: Our Whole Economy Needs a Gender-Culture Shift

Sheila Bapat

Jodi Kantor’s recent front-page New York Times story describes an experiment by the Harvard Business School to transform its deeply sexist culture and “foster women’s success.” But the gender problem in our economy runs much deeper than that.

Jodi Kantor’s front-page story in this Sunday’s New York Times describes an experiment by the Harvard Business School (HBS) over the past two years to transform its deeply sexist culture and “foster women’s success.”

HBS’ effort was launched in response to a pattern of troubling events at the school: male students groping women classmates during social events, a classroom culture that has been said to stifle women’s participation, and secret networks of “ultrawealthy, mostly male” students that help sustain the class and gender problems in the school.

As part of the experiment, the school instituted the use of software that shows professors’ grading patterns by gender, started coaching women students in speaking up assertively in class, formed student study groups instead of letting students pick their own, and mandated discussions about sexual harassment. And the effort has had some positive results. Since 2009, the percentage of women in the school’s class has risen slightly, to 40 percent, and the percentage of women in the top 5 percent of the class has nearly tripled, to 38 percent.

The school’s gender problems represent how graduate business school programs encourage wealth and success over men’s entire careers—and grooming them for economic leadership—while female students are often overlooked or allowed to fall behind. The entrenched sexism described in Kantor’s piece not only affects the experience of women business students while they are in school—it plays a role in how they will perform career-wise once they graduate. And while she didn’t say it explicitly, much of Kantor’s research reveals how a proactive effort to change gender dynamics is needed for the economy as a whole; recent events such as the battle between Larry Summers and Janet Yellen for the Federal Reserve Chair nomination make this abundantly clear.

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Harvard is a breeding ground for highly paid business executives, and basic economic security is not an issue for the average HBS graduate, male or female. At the same time, a major takeaway from Kantor’s piece is how, in terms of potential for career ascendancy and wealth accumulation, the odds are stacked against women from the outset. While Kantor didn’t focus as closely on it in her article, her research about HBS shows a connection between the culture of the graduate school and women’s versus men’s economic prospects post-graduation. After school, women graduates have the same hefty debt as their male counterparts, but with less likelihood of earning as much or being considered for the same opportunities. As Kantor writes:

[T]he class of 2013 would to some degree part by gender after graduation, with more men going into higher-paying areas like finance and more women going into lower-paying ones like marketing.

Kantor writes about some male students at the school offer each other tips “about many of the most lucrative jobs,” which aren’t shared with women at the school. The exclusion of women from “informal” networks such as these is discussed in a 2011 McKinsey & Company report about women in business:

The reasons why women choose to remain at their current level or move on to another organization—despite their unflagging confidence and desire to advance—include: lack of role models, exclusion from the informal networks, not having a sponsor in upper management to create opportunities.

In economics—another field in which wealth and policy stars are bred—a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco discusses the “persistent underrepresentation of women” driven by the field’s culture. The report concludes that the presence of women economics professors yields more women taking an interest in those fields: “[A] larger share of women on the economics faculty of top universities has led to more female students entering economics PhD programs.” However, as of 2003, the percentage of female faculty in economics programs hovered around only 30 percent, and in 2009 women accounted for just 34 percent of first-year PhD candidates in economics programs and fewer than 12 percent of full economics professors.

All of these trends affect career ascendancy and earning power. Last month, ThinkProgress’ Bryce Covert wrote about the “firmly intact” glass ceiling among seven economic institutions, including Wall Street, where women comprise “less than 20 percent of executive officers and board directors and less than a quarter of senior officers.”

Citigroup doesn’t have any female executives, and JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley only have one each. Seven of the ten most powerful venture capital firms have zero female partners.

And among the elite business schools such as Harvard, the vast majority of deans and faculty are men.

The disparity is also abundantly clear in policy-making. The U.S. Treasury Secretary is the key economic adviser to the president, charged with setting domestic and international economic policy; the United States has never had a woman in this role. While President Obama is well aware of the highly qualified women ripe for filling these economic roles, he time and time again chooses men.

There are references in Kantor’s piece to how the environment at HBS mirrors what graduates would experience out in the “real world.” Deans at Harvard who were committed to this gender power shift grappled with the fact that “the more exquisitely gender-sensitive the school environment became, the less resemblance it bore to the real business world,” which, as these many examples have demonstrated, is clearly not undergoing a gender sensitivity program.

As Fatima Goss Graves, vice president of education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center, told Rewire, “Deliberately creating a gender-culture transformation is exactly on point, but I don’t see enough actors in the economy doing this. It probably takes an institution like Harvard to help make the case that this is important for business too.”

She went on, “The old-school informal networks are still around. Changing this requires mentorship, sponsorship, promotion, someone with the right connections to guide you through. It can absolutely make a difference in people’s careers.”

The Harvard Business School story shows how the playing field for women’s and men’s economic success is uneven from the start. The cultural transformation HBS has undertaken has already been recommended for the business world: McKinsey & Company pointed out in its report “the need for systemic, organizational change” on a cultural level. HBS’ attempt to address its gender problems head-on is rare and admirable, and sheds light on how deep the gender problem runs in our economy.