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Harvard Business School Tackles Entrenched Issues of Gender Inequity

300px-Harvard_business_school_baker_library_2009aHarvard Business School (HBS) Dean Nitin Nohria has, for the past two years, been leading a school-wide effort to foster greater success among female MBA students by making changes to the school’s curriculum, rules and social rituals, according to a recent front-page story in the New York Times.

HBS for years has seen women enter the school with the same test scores and grades as their male counterparts, only to quickly fall behind. The school has also struggled to attract and retain female professors. So in 2010, the Times reports, Harvard’ first female president, Drew Gilpin Faust, appointed Dean Nohria, who pledged to address the gender relations issue head on. Two years in, the school reports remarkable gains among women, though some of the changes implemented by the administration have met with opposition and hostility.

As part of the effort to remake gender relations at HBS, Nohria and his team stationed stenographers in classrooms to prevent biased grading, gave untenured female professors private coaching, launched mandatory discussions about sexual harassment and complemented the time-honored case-study method with a new course, FIELD, which groups students into problem-solving teams.

After two years of these and other changes, the grades of female students rose significantly, and the teaching scores of female professors also shot up, according to the Times report. “By graduation, the school had become a markedly better place for female students, according to interviews with more than 70 professors, administrators and students, who cited more women participating in class, record numbers of women winning academic awards and a much-improved environment,” read the Times article. Indeed, for the first time in the school’s history, almost 40 percent of the George F. Baker Scholars – a venerated honor awarded to the top 5 percent of the class – were women.

Nonetheless, some HBS students characterized the efforts of Nohria and his administration as anywhere from off-putting to “a painful experience,” the Times reported. And the project has revealed numerous entrenched issues to which solutions remain elusive, including the degree to which female students often feel they have to choose between academic and social success and the ways in which wealth, or the lack thereof, influences the experience of HBS students of both genders.

“We made progress on the first-level things, but what it’s permitting us to do is see, holy cow, how deep-seated the rest of this is,” Frances Frei, HBS administrator and chairwoman of the first-year curriculum, told the Times. The deans have vowed to carry on the experiment, though they would not say how aggressively. Nohria, for his part, told the Times that he has been guided throughout by the phrase, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Read the complete New York Times article, “Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity.”