The Missing Link to Innovation and Inclusion

Harvard Business School and Gender Equity


It is good that HBS acknowledges it has a problem developing women – students and faculty alike. It is also good that they take this issue seriously, as well as their stewardship responsibility. HBS is a springboard to the C-suite and Board Rooms which control so much of the power and resources of our country.

After reading this article about Gender Equity at Harvard Business School, however, I felt fortunate to come into McKinsey the easy way – by earning a hard science PhD in twice the time at MIT. Who’da thunk? At least while in graduate school, I was liberated to focus on the work. We were largely undistracted by pressure to social network and find the perfect mate and/or job. Learn, teach, and do great research – that was job #1. Relationships evolved out of common interest, and opportunities emerged naturally. Success depended predominantly on brains and discipline – not on gender, appearance, or socioeconomic status, which are common starting points for networking when you have less experience. So, this apparent stratification of “us” and “them” was the first source of discomfort in reading the article, but it wasn’t the most egregious.

The most discouraging part was that HBS is working so hard on “enhancing women’s styles” to increase gender equity. Been there, done that. Teaching women to raise their hands more and be more assertive during case discussions wouldn’t have done anything for the many talented women (or men) I know who lead below their capacity now. The time for making us all into the mold of the old-fashioned CEO is over. We need changemakers. We need something new and paradigm shifting from institutions like HBS instead of these tired answers. Here is what I think about this case study on gender equity:

1. The results of the HBS effort suggest more about the bias of HBS professors than anything else. Shining a light on the wise yet overweight Baker scholar in the end of this article seemed like a grab – to show how open and enlightened things are now. What she does next will be the most interesting part of the story. The fact that this system didn’t manage to discourage and marginalize her is hardly cause for celebration. They didn’t make her either. These young women and men who have the courage to lead in different ways and with integrity will make real change.

2. If descriptions of modern life inside of Ivy League schools like this are accurate, there seems to be more pressure on women to actively find husbands while in school than there was in my generation. I wonder why. If true, it’s robbing young women now of the joy of mind-expanding education, a sense of wonderment, and precious time young adults have to focus on what they really want to be/do in this world – to find a passion and learn all they can – absent responsibilities to other people, especially parents and children. It’s sad.

3. The rubber hits the road when it comes to raising children and time. Period. Style is in many ways a red herring – something to work on so we seem to be busily addressing the issue of the dearth of women in leadership – and the work remains squarely in women’s laps. A new paradigm for growing changemaker leaders and changemaker children has to be everyone’s goal, not just women’s. Until we tackle this issue head on, there is nothing new here to jumpstart our stagnant companies, economy, educational systems, healthcare industry, etc, etc, etc.

So, what did you learn from this HBS case study? Raise your hand high and speak up please!

Photo credit:

5 Responses to “Harvard Business School and Gender Equity”

  1. anne lapointe

    I read it and was appalled at the subculture that had evolved there. I know it’s important to network, but everything seemed to hinge on that, either directly or indirectly. It was so far outside my grad school experience as well, and I was cringing as I read it. Partway through the article I realized that the women there were no different than us when we were in grad school – they were trying to learn and do as well as they could, but they had a completely different set of systemic challenges to deal with.
    When I read the example of women being told how to ask questions, I initially scoffed, but then remembered that when I was a first year, an older student once told me not to preface my questions with “This might be a stupid question but…” after I did it at a seminar. Somewhere along the line I had been socialized to do that, so I was grateful that someone pointed it out to me. I couldn’t tell from the article if it was something like that, or just telling people to ask questions, or trying to create a more inclusive environment in the classroom.
    I’ve been wondering about the pressure on women to actively seek out husbands while in college/grad school/professional school . It certainly seems like there is more pressure these days, at least for certain segments of society. But perhaps I am falling victim to the New York Times syndrome and thinking that a few anecdotes equals a major societal trend. For what it’s worth, chemistry grad school is still pretty much the same as it was 20 years ago, and I don’t get the impression that it’s a major concern to the students where I work.

    • jackieacho

      Thanks for your comment Anne. I was cringing too while reading the article.

      I can also see that there is value in helping young women (and men) emerge in a competitive environment by teaching stylistic tips (e.g., don’t preface your comment, raise your hand) which they can incorporate before real confidence kicks in. That’s NOT the heart of the issue of why we have so few women in leadership though, is it? Making a “case study” of teaching style (yet again) is a misuse of HBS’s platform as a premier leadership development institution.

      We need to work on the real issue, which is that women (and some men) opt out of leadership because time constraints make it impossible to integrate with parenting/family at the same time most people rise in leadership. We need a paradigm shift which incorporates personal and leadership development more realistically so it’s not just the toughest who survive, but the best. Shared leadership. Longer but accessible ladders to the top. Valuing empathetic leadership and all that contributes to it (family, community) for its connection to innovation and performance. A really great case study would shine a light all of this these things toward a new paradigm. THAT is the kind of leadership we need from HBS, not a rehash of a decades’ old conversation about style which hasn’t gotten us anywhere.

      I appreciate your time and insights, Anne.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: