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Harvard Business School Committed to Gender Equity A Decade Ago. How Successful Have Its Efforts Been? | News

When Harvard Business School professor Janice H. Hammond was first hired, she was questioned for parking in the faculty lot and using the faculty Xerox machine.

“I’ve been there a long time and things are a lot better, but you know what? Early on, I was questioned by just about everybody because there simply were almost no women,” she said in an interview.

Hammond, who is now senior associate dean for culture and community, has been at the Business School for almost 37 years. The year Hammond began her tenure, 1984, saw the first woman to run for the vice presidency of the United States in a major party ticket, the first American woman to walk in space, and American female athletes bringing home a total of 62 Olympic medals.

Throughout her tenure at Harvard, Hammond’s actions have carved a space for women to succeed at the historically male Business School, which exists in the shadow of the male-dominated finance field.

Jan Hammond, the Business School’s senior associate dean for culture and community, recalls being questioned early in her tenure because there were so few female professors. By Courtesy Photo

During a 2009 faculty meeting in which professors voted on that year’s Baker Scholars — students whose grades put them in the top 5 percent of their class and who graduate with “high distinction” — Hammond asked a question that stumped the other faculty members in the room.

“I literally just was glancing at one of the women that was a Baker Scholar that year,” she said. “And I said, ‘Well, could you just tell us how many of the Baker Scholars were women?’”

“That’s when the answer came out that ‘we don’t know,’” she recalled. “I think that was perhaps as impactful as the number.”

After a break in the middle of the meeting, Hammond said, someone counted the male and female Baker Scholars. There were six women, and 39 men.

A Gap at the Highest Level

The qualifications for Baker Scholars are strict. Students must achieve first-year and second-year honors to graduate “with distinction.” After that, only the top five percent of the graduating class can qualify for Baker Scholar status, after a committee of faculty members conclude that each qualifying student followed the HBS “community values” during their time at the school.

Per a 2013 article in The Atlantic, 2009 had a particularly large discrepancy between women chosen to be Baker Scholars compared to the overall graduating class composition. Since then, the number of female Baker Scholars has risen and the gap in between men and women’s performance has narrowed.

The number of female Baker Scholars from 2015-2021 compared to the number of Baker Scholars expected year-to-year based on women's representation in the general population and total number of Baker Scholars. Women only outperformed their expected performance in 2018 and 2021, whereas men outperformed their expected performance every other year.

The number of female Baker Scholars from 2015-2021 compared to the number of Baker Scholars expected year-to-year based on women’s representation in the general population and total number of Baker Scholars. Women only outperformed their expected performance in 2018 and 2021, whereas men outperformed their expected performance every other year. By Yuen Ting Chow

According to Hammond, the origin of the gender grade gap is not clear, but she noted that women sometimes fall out of the running to be Baker Scholars after they do not qualify for first-year honors.

“The reality is we don’t know what brought the gap down in the last decade or so,” Hammond said. “These differences for distinction for first-year honors and second-year honors, they’ve always been within 10 percentage points of women’s representation in the class, and before that it was higher.”

Hammond said, however, administrators and professors at the school have made it a priority to make sure all students feel they are able to succeed.

“We worked a lot to think about how to make sure that everybody in the community feels that they can meet their potential from the beginning,” Hammond said.

Despite this, women remain underrepresented in the Baker Scholar group.

Using available data from the University alumni directory, The Crimson determined that from 2015 to 2021, men were disproportionately represented in the Baker Scholars’ cohort compared to the overall HBS gender ratio. The Crimson was not able to obtain other data on the scholars to control for any factors that may mitigate the discrepancy in the makeup of the Baker Scholars.

HBS spokesperson Brian C. Kenny wrote in an email that they are not aware such data exists.

“We are not aware of any additional factors accounting for the gender gap,” Kenny wrote.

Some students, however, point to a discrepancy in educational and work experience backgrounds that may allow some to fare better than others at HBS.

Second-year MBA student Megan A. Murday, who came to HBS with a liberal arts instead of finance background, said that students with finance backgrounds are often seen as a “source of authority and authoritative opinion,” regardless of gender, according to Murday.

A 2018 Catalyst study found that women make up less than 17 percent of senior leadership in investment banking.

HBS professor Robin J. Ely, the founder and faculty chair of the Gender Initiative — the school’s program to advance equity in the business world — said in an interview that a 2012 study conducted under the school’s Culture and Community Initiative found that controlling for finance background, undergraduate grade point average, and test scores in years prior to 2012 did not narrow the gender grade gap. She added, though, women generally come from finance backgrounds less often.

“I think that was probably one of the most important aspects of that whole undertaking is that people just couldn’t walk around and say the women were less good,” Ely said.

Kenny wrote in an email that studies such as the 2012 Culture and Community Initiative Ely cited were not released to the public nor to the HBS student body.

“The results are not shared with members of the community out of concern that they could introduce bias into the educational process,” he wrote. “Given the small number of Baker Scholars in a given year, any bias introduced into the educational process could have an oversized impact on the outcome.”

This year, the 2021 Baker Scholars consist of 17 women and 23 men. This ratio of 42.5 percent and 57.5 percent, respectively, represents a higher proportion of women than the 42 percent found in the graduating class of 2021.

Murday said that she felt “really proud” of this year’s breakdown and deeply admired other women who were “vocal and strong in a classroom setting.”

“I am excited that our class was able to achieve a more equitable distribution of Baker Scholars because that reflects the performance I saw in the classroom as well,” Murday added.

Kenny did not directly respond to a question on what specifically may have contributed to the closing of the gender gap in Baker Scholars this year.

“We continually analyze and experiment with new approaches and we believe that collectively those actions are having the desired impact,” Kenny wrote.

The Crimson could only find two years for which the award recipients’ names were published on HBS’s Commencement website — 2020 and 2021. When asked for a year-by-year breakdown of Baker Scholars by gender and race, Kenny said this information is not publicly disclosed.

Murday described a lack of “transparency” around how Baker Scholars are chosen, and several other students said the same.

A survey by several gender equity student organizations at HBS published in The Harbus — the Business School’s student newspaper — this month found a large percentage of the student body also felt the criteria around choosing Baker Scholars was opaque.

“[O]nly 41% of women and 51% of men said they were clear on what it would take to become a Baker Scholar,” the report read.

2021 Baker Scholar Ayush Bhargava said he favored releasing details on the makeup of the Baker Scholar cohort, arguing that more transparency could help measure gender and race parity.

“If HBS releases the statistics, it might become much easier for people to study the disparity between the class composition and the Baker Scholar composition,” Bhargava said.

‘The Push for Gender Equity’

The report in the Harbus dispelling first-year myths, which included the study on student familiarity with Baker Scholar criteria, reported that students generally felt they were treated equitably in the classroom by faculty members during their required credit, or RC, year.

Students, however, reported a disparty in how they were treated by fellow students, an issue which “appears to be driven” by white males. Less than three percent of white males reported feeling treated inequitably by classmates, whereas 12 percent of men of color and women of all races and ethnicities reported feeling inequitably treated.

The study also revealed that only six out of 10 students felt their perspectives were welcomed in the classroom setting.

Following Nitin Nohria’s appointment as dean of the Business School in July 2010, faculty raised the issue of gender inequality that was first widely acknowledged during the 2009 faculty meeting around Baker Scholars.

“For many of us, this was just something we were aware of, but it had never been actually publicly discussed until it came up at that meeting, and so I count that as the kind of initial consciousness raising on the faculty,” Ely said.

As a result, one of Nohria’s five priorities for his tenure — announced in the fall of 2010 — was “inclusion.”

The “inclusion” priority was the only one on Nohria’s agenda that did not fall naturally into the domain of a senior associate dean. Nohria asked Ely, whose research focused on gender and race relations in organizations, to head up a Culture and Community Initiative.

Ely said she was “thrilled” to head the initiative. She recalled Nohria telling her that it was “very high priority” for him and that he wanted to “shine a light on it.”

Ely added that it was unclear what was driving the grade gap before 2010, and that this was “concerning.” She considered two possible explanations during the Initiative: levels of preparedness coming into the school, and the demands on students during their time at HBS.

HBS professor Robin J. Ely is the founder and faculty chair of the Gender Initiative.

Ely launched an empirical investigation of the pre-2012 grade gap, aggregating data including first-year grades, overall satisfaction, survey data, GMATs, financial background, undergraduate GPA, and more.

The study — confidential but shared among HBS faculty — determined that the grade gap was a “demand issue,” produced by the culture of the school. Controlling for those factors, the grade gap “remained significant,” according to Ely.

The study, however, also observed the grade gap closing to non-significance before 2010, regardless of the potential confounding factors.

Since the 2012 Culture and Community Initiative, Ely said there has not been another report.

Brooke D. Boyarsky Pratt, a 2013 Baker Scholar, recalled meeting with administration regularly as a section Educational Representative — a kind of liaison between students and administration. She said one of her jobs as a representative for the Student Association was to make it a priority for all students to feel included in the classroom.

“We had active conversations with the administrators about making sure that the class was a very inclusive environment where people felt like they could bring their whole selves and participate,” Boyarsky Pratt said.

She also noticed the material in the curriculum had changed, noting that cases in class centered more around “diversity” than they had in past years.

Ely said HBS is particularly mindful of students’ educational experience at the school.

“I’ve never been at an institution that is so conscientious about ensuring a high-quality experience for the students, especially in the classroom because that’s what we have the most control over,” Ely said.

Boyarsky Pratt said that although she felt HBS had a “male-oriented culture,” she had a mixed-gender friend group she could confide in.

“The net net was like, does it feel like a more male oriented culture? Totally,” Boyarsky Pratt said. “Did that, you know, negatively affect my experience? I didn’t feel like it did. I felt like people were really inclusive.”

Though many students said they feel the culture is inclusive, others believe that gender inequity still exists in the school’s culture.

Second-year MBA student Dana M. Louie said when she first got to HBS, she felt the space “was more welcoming to male-identifying students.”

“There were just, sort of rules and cultural norms that were more stereotypically male,” Louie said. “We’re graded on participation and we’re in these really large classrooms where if you have a quieter voice, you might not have as good participation.”

Louie added that the biggest “structural” norm that was “stereotypically male” is how using the restroom during class is considered inappropriate.

“I think as a female, I more often need to use the restroom. I mean, for God’s sake, I menstruate,” Louie added.

As her section’s Gender Equity representative, Murday said she noticed female students “tend to take up much less airtime for comments” than male students, but that it was not an aspect of the classroom that others were “enforcing” upon female students. Ultimately, Murday said she “personally never felt undervalued.”

In her Negotiations class, Louie said she felt students were better off if they had “stereotypically male traits,” which she described as argument and negotiation, as opposed to more “female traits” of collaboration and collective agreement. She wondered if HBS should also reward negotiators who, instead of being “aggressive,” are “very good at being collaborative and helping amplify other people’s voices.”

Louie said, however, some professors intentionally brought gender equity to the “forefront” of discussion.

“I think there’s definitely the push for gender equity, it feels very prevalent at the school,” Louie said. “But at the same time, you know, it’s clearly not completely equal.”

‘An Ongoing Mission’

Though no publicly available reports have emerged on the grade gap, the Business School has implemented several tools and initiatives to mitigate potential bias in the classroom.

One such undertaking is the Gender Initiative, which Ely founded in 2015 to “close disparities of opportunities as well as outcomes,” calling inequality a waste of talent. According to Colleen C. Ammerman, director of the Gender Initiative, the team exists for research purposes.

“It’s important for us to think of working toward gender and racial and other forms of equity at the school institutionally as an ongoing mission,” she said. “It’s not something that you just get — for instance with Baker Scholars, kind of get to one year where you see gender parity and say ‘okay, now we can move on.’”

Another initiative is the HBS Action Plan for Racial Equity, announced in 2020. Despite this, students still said the school could do better in supporting international students and students of color.

Second-year MBA student and Baker Scholar Mae Abdelrahman said she was “very sad and disappointed” to see there were fewer Black students selected as Baker Scholars this year compared to last.

“While we’re moving towards gender parity, I hope that we will also move in a direction of equity for all other underrepresented groups,” Abdelrahman added.

In 2011, HBS held an orientation week for the Class of 2013. Boyarsky Pratt recalled a workshop in which students were taught “best practices” for their time at HBS, such as “aggressive” hand-raising, teaching students how to read cases, and explaining available student resources, such as free tutoring. Boyarsky Pratt said she did not remember the workshop being “outwardly gendered.”

“If you want to get called on, you just have to raise your hand quickly and aggressively because of the 90 people in your section, I don’t know, 70, 60 might raise their hand with a thought,” Boyarsky Pratt said. “So I didn’t feel like that was condescending or anything. I actually thought it was super helpful.”

Anoothi, a second-year MBA student and Baker Scholar who does not use a last name, said she initially faced “confidence issues” because she is from India and was not familiar with the U.S. education system.

“Speaking in the class was not as easy for me as, I would say, a lot of white males,” she said.

Second-year MBA student and Baker Scholar Eufern Pan said the school could do better in supporting international students. She said her experience working at McKinsey & Company helped her speak up in the classroom, but the HBS experience is “very foreign” for many other international students and “in many ways very contradictory to Asian culture.”

She argued HBS education should challenge the belief that “putting yourself out there” is necessary for success as a leader, especially for students who work in non-Western countries after graduation. Pan also said that HBS should push for “psychological safety” when it comes to bringing up differing opinions in the classroom.

The stark disparity in Baker Scholars — students whose grades put them in the top 5 percent of their class — at Harvard Business School in 2009 set off a reckoning on gender equity at the school.

The stark disparity in Baker Scholars — students whose grades put them in the top 5 percent of their class — at Harvard Business School in 2009 set off a reckoning on gender equity at the school. By Thomas Maisonneuve

A tool professors mentioned helped them keep track of patterns in who they called on is a scribe program — staff who keep track of speakers and comments in the classroom — which was implemented officially in 2012. Hammond, the senior associate dean for culture and community, said that while she thinks the program has been “terrific” and may have helped with gender parity, there is no concrete statistical evidence that scribes have made a direct difference in the gender gap.

Louie said she appreciated knowing that regardless of vocal delivery, comments could be attributed to the right people, and this was “great” for gender equity in the classroom. She said, however, having scribes could be “a little intimidating,” especially in her first semester because any “stupid” comments she made could be reviewed by professors.

“For myself, I think it’s a little intimidating to be a woman in a predominantly male environment,” Louie said. “To know that everything you’re saying is being written down makes it almost a little more scary to raise your hand.”

Louie added that statistics aren’t “highly observable” or “visible,” and HBS can improve in this area. She also said she hoped to see improvements including changes to classroom participation assessments and a future female dean of the school.

“I think we often pay more attention to the way that men say things, or we pay more attention to the comments they make when they say them in a way that’s stereotypically male,” Louie said.

Second-year MBA student and Baker Scholar Ryan Y. Yu said he hopes to see more open conversations within sections about how to promote women’s voices. He recalled section-wide discussions about how to be an ally and create “gender-wise, a more distributed conversation.”

Kenny, the school spokesperson, wrote in the statement that HBS makes inclusion a priority.

“Diversity, inclusion and belonging, including gender and racial equity, are top priorities for everyone at Harvard Business School and we will continue to invest the time and resources needed to improve,” he wrote.

Murday said she felt HBS could better prepare all its students to be better managers of and co-workers to women in the workplace.

Murday referenced the “glass cliff” — the concept that women are more likely to be brought into leadership when the company is struggling and subsequently more likely to be fired. This causes women’s tenures as CEOs to be shorter, so it looks like they’re underperforming, an example of gender-based challenges she said do not come up often enough in the HBS curriculum.

“I think the curriculum could bring in more cases like that, that talk about the challenges that women face in the workforce,” Murday said. “Because, really, this is training leaders who could go out and make a real difference on gender equity in the workplace, but only if prepared and trained to do so.”

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at [email protected]rimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.

—Staff writer Carrie Hsu can be reached at [email protected]