Harvard Business School Grapples With Gender Imbalance

Current and former female faculty members allude to 'unconscious bias' against women at school

One female Harvard Business School professor remembers the year 2007 as the “mass exodus.”

That year, nine of the 28 female junior faculty members at the time packed up and left. Three had come out of the tenure review process disappointed. The rest, facing what they felt to be slim chances, either chose not to apply for promotion or took leaves of absence to close out their time at Harvard.

None of the nine women—all but one of whom asked to remain anonymous to protect their relationship with the Business School—could quite pinpoint what had gone wrong or what hadn’t felt right.

But in interviews with The Crimson, all nine—along with several current faculty members—allude to a subtle, unconscious bias against women woven into the longstanding culture at the Business School.

With women making up only 29 percent of its junior faculty, the Business School faces one of the largest gender imbalances at Harvard’s graduate schools, according to the 2009 annual report issued by the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity. At the other end of the spectrum, almost 60 percent of junior faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education are women.

Though the Business School has taken steps in recent years to create a friendlier environment for women, several current female faculty members argue that some aspects of the school’s culture are reminiscent of the male-dominated business world of previous generations. The lingering remnants of the old boys’ club, they say, place women at a noticeable disadvantage.

“There is a subtle difference in treatment that men and women receive,” one of the nine former faculty members recalls. “These small differences in treatment accumulate. It damages women over time.”

“That particular instance of decimation [when eight of her colleagues left the school along with her in 2007] could be rationalized by the administration case-by-case for all very different reasons,” she adds. “But in reality, many of the men that had similar characteristics did make it.”

UNCONSCIOUS GENDER BIAS

Soon after taking the helm of the Business School in 2005, Dean Jay O. Light sought to improve the environment for women on campus. Under his watch, women who gave birth were granted an additional year in the typical 10-year “tenure clock” as well as an extended maternity leave starting in 2006.

But several current female faculty members say the deep-seated cultural bias remains, coloring their experiences at the school.

“[Dean Light] was very instrumental in getting these issues talked about and out in the open,” says one female faculty member, who wished to remain anonymous to protect her relationship with the school. “I felt like he was trying.”

“But then not a whole lot happened,” she says.

Though the nine women who left in 2007 stop short of alleging gender discrimination, they cite various instances in which they felt subject to pressures that their male colleagues escaped—inappropriate remarks directed at female faculty or a constant pressure to spend less time with their children, for example.

“I was once advised to get a nanny so I could do more work,” one of the nine who chose to leave the Business School says. “A woman can fit the mold and pretend to be one of the men and sacrifice family life—but if they want to do both, it’s harder.”

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