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Harvard Business School Grapples With Gender Imbalance

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

By Tara W. Merrigan and William N. White, Crimson Staff Writers

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.”

Another professor recalls an end of the semester evaluation in which students commented on a female colleague’s fashion choices as opposed to her teaching.

“It seems empirically that women have a harder time being respected and getting that credibility in the classroom needed to be a good teacher,” adds another female professor, who wished to remain anonymous.

Satisfaction ratings from female faculty at the Business School fell well below the average at all of Harvard’s other graduate schools, according to a faculty survey administered in 2007, and the Business School reported the second largest difference in satisfaction ratings between male and female faculty.

But faculty members note that the gender skew is not a problem specific to Harvard Business School, as peer institutions such as Stanford, Wharton, and Kellogg report even lower percentages of women on faculty.

“Is the Business School a horrible place? No,” says Business School professor Regina E. Herzlinger, who was the first woman to receive an endowed chair at the school in the 1980s. “Academia needs to look at women and be cognizant that there are unconscious and conscious biases.”

LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL

As Light enters the final months of his deanship, the Business School continues its efforts both to attract and to support female faculty, such as routinely placing ads in publications like “Women in Higher Education,” which is geared towards female academics.

Going forward, the Business School aims to increase the representation of female junior faculty hires to 40 percent, according to David Bell, who is the senior associate dean and director of faculty planning and recruiting.

Bell attributes the gender gap at the school in part to the limited pool of female talent, explaining that “because there is pressure across all institutions to hire women, they’re in great demand.”

For female students at the Business School, Bell adds, the low proportion of women on the faculty may negatively affect academic performance, though he says it is unclear whether female senior faculty are better mentors than males to female junior faculty and students.

“If that’s true, obviously the fact that we have a high proportion of male tenured faculty for historical reasons might lead women to have a harder time being successful,” Bell says.

To combat gender-related insensitivity, Light encouraged Business School faculty to attend a seminar on unconscious bias given by psychology professor Mahzarin R. Banaji of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences this spring, and the school’s annual Christensen Center Colloquium—which helps faculty learn how to teach the case method—will highlight gender issues this fall.

“This is something we definitely talk about in our faculty meetings,” business administration professor Andrei Hagiu says. “But I don’t think there’s discrimination here.”

And business administration professor Robin Ely, who also teaches in the Business School’s Women’s Leadership Forum, says that there is no single explanation for the dearth of female faculty members.

“There are small inadvertent things that go on in our culture, but there is no blatant sexism here,” Ely says.

Bell adds that the administration is uncertain how to tackle what is perceived as an “unconscious bias.”

“If we knew a way to detect the problem and we could solve it, we would,” Bell says.

Entrepreneurial management professor Lynda M. Applegate notes that she has seen an improvement in the environment for women at the Business School during her 24 years at the school, adding that the pressures of tenure review have increased for both male and female junior faculty.

Each of the nine women who left Harvard Business School went on to join the faculty at other business schools or enter the private sector. Several are now tenured or up for tenure.

“You’d think that the Business School would have better success in attracting and keeping women,” one of the women says. “The administration is not malicious—they just haven’t figured out how to do that yet.”

—Staff writer Tara W. Merrigan can be reached at tmerrigan@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer William N. White can be reached at wwhite@fas.harvard.edu.

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