On Leveling the Playing Field for Female Graduate Students

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran a lengthy piece on Harvard Business School’s attempt last school year to address the difficulties that female students faced. The results of the experiment were mixed, to say the least.

[The students] had been unwitting guinea pigs in what would have once sounded like a far-fetched feminist fantasy: What if Harvard Business School gave itself a gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success?

The country’s premier business training ground was trying to solve a seemingly intractable problem. Year after year, women who had arrived with the same test scores and grades as men fell behind. Attracting and retaining female professors was a losing battle; from 2006 to 2007, a third of the female junior faculty left.

…many Wall Street-hardened women confided that Harvard was worse than any trading floor, with first-year students divided into sections that took all their classes together and often developed the overheated dynamics of reality shows. Some male students, many with finance backgrounds, commandeered classroom discussions and hazed female students and younger faculty members…

The school had a many-pronged approach that included stenographers in classrooms, additional support forums for female students and professors, and discouraging the alcohol-infused parties. While the faculty and female students felt there was more than a little progress made, not surprisingly, there was some backlash and resentment amongst the students.

A few day’s later there was this response to the article from Megan McArdle, a graduate of the business school at the University of Chicago. She starts out comparing her own academic experience to the picture presented in the article, and goes on to comment about what she and fellow graduates have experienced as they chose a post-graduate career path. She is skeptical about the effectiveness of the HBS experiment. 

Overall, I’m less sanguine about these sorts of efforts than the folks running HBS seem to be. Not because I think that sexism is a done problem, mind you. Women do get penalized in all sorts of ways for being assertive, and in a system that rewards assertiveness, they start out with a big handicap. But I’m skeptical that Harvard really found a way to conquer this problem. At one point, Harvard sends everyone to mandatory discussions about sexual harassment, after a female student complains about getting groped in a bar. These sorts of sessions have been common since I was in college, and in my observation, they’re next to useless; mostly, they give administrators and student coordinators the pleasant feeling of having “done something” about a problem. The students who are already politically engaged on the issue find them very invigorating, but everyone else finds them somewhere between tedious and bullying, because while we talk a lot about having a “conversation” about issues like sexism, it’s not much of a conversation when one side risks offending powerful professors and administrators if it speaks frankly.

Though I, myself, give HBS a little more credit for trying – allowing for a learning curve in that first year — both pieces are an interesting look at the challenges young women face in choosing a career path. 



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