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Closing the HKS Gender Imbalance

By Ariane Litalien, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard Kennedy School has a plethora of programs focused on women and gender issues.

The Kennedy School Women and Public Policy Program organizes weekly seminars on gender, works on bringing women to speak at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, and  provides training services to young female scholars.

This year, students can even take a class entitled “Closing the Global Gender Gap,” which focuses on how to design efficient policies to increase gender equity across the world.

Yet in spite of these efforts to raise awareness on the issue of gender imbalance, the percentage of female faculty at the Kennedy School—although improving from year to year—has remained very low over the past decade.

Approximately 27 percent of the junior faculty and 22 percent of the senior faculty at the Kennedy School were women in the last academic year, according to the annual report of the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity.

These numbers are similar to the percentage of female faculty at Harvard professional schools in general—34 percent of junior faculty and 20 percent of senior faculty were female.

But they are low compared to other schools of government in the U.S.

Three out of the four peer institutions used as benchmarks in the report have a higher percentage of female junior faculty members, while the fourth had an equal number, and two of the peer schools also had higher percentages of female senior faculty.

“It is a huge problem,” Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood ’75 says of the gender imbalance. “We’ve got to stop missing women.”


According to Ellwood and other Kennedy School faculty members, one of the main reasons for the gender imbalance might be the school’s focus on quantitative fields such as economics, areas in which men have historically been more active than women.

Consequently, when the Kennedy School opens a position in these fields, there are often more male than female applicants.

“When you hire, you hire from the pool that’s available,” says former Kennedy School Dean Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

Kennedy School Academic Dean Mary Jo Bane declined to provide data about the number of women hired by the Kennedy School in each department annually, saying that these numbers are “not very meaningful year by year” since the Kennedy School hires only a small number of faculty members each year.

The Kennedy School’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs was unable to confirm that economics classes are mostly taught by male faculty while social sciences classes are mostly taught by women.

However, all 10 tenured professors of political economy at the Kennedy School are male.

Teaching large social sciences classes is typically more time-consuming than teaching economics courses, because essays take longer to grade than problem sets, say multiple Kennedy School professors.

But teaching large lecture courses fulfills an important requirement for Kennedy School faculty. Consequently, social sciences professors who do not teach many large lecture classes due to the time constraints of grading must spend more time on other tasks such as mentoring or book writing to compensate, professors say.


But the gender imbalance could also be explained by many other factors, according to Kennedy School professor Jane J. Mansbridge. Mansbridge was on the 2005 Harvard Task Force on Women Faculty and served for several years as the Kennedy School’s liaison to the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity.

Unlike other peer institutions, the Kennedy School does not tenure junior faculty, putting significant pressure on young associate professors who must juggle a demanding low-security job and a while potentially starting a family, according to Mansbridge.

“Most universities tenure at the associate level, so you write [your required] book and then you can have a baby,” Mansbridge says.

But to achieve tenure at the Kennedy School, young parents—who Mansbridge says are disproportionately female—have to raise their children while writing books and teaching.


Kennedy School professors and students raise other concerns about gender equity, including the relatively high number of female lecturers, who are not tenure-track professors, and the pattern of women teaching non-required courses.

“Our women tend to be not in the ladder faculty but in lectureship,” Kennedy School Professor Monica D. Toft says.

And Emily R. Polak, the co-chair of the Kennedy School Progressive Caucus, says there are only seven women out of 30 professors this year teaching core courses for the Master in Public Policy program.

The program requires students to take certain courses during their first year. Called the Core Curriculum, they include classes on markets, economic policy, and management of public organizations.

This situation has triggered frustration among both professors and students.

Sarah B. Bouchat, co-chair of the Kennedy School’s Women and Gender Caucus, says she was able to take classes with four female faculty members so far, but says that was mostly because of her specific areas of interest.

“I had to put in a lot of effort to make it happen,” Bouchat says.

Many students also say that because they have mostly male professors, they are not exposed to as many diverse perspectives as they could be otherwise.

“Men and women see things differently,” says Tammy L. Wisco, a Kennedy School mid-career student pursuing a master’s degree in public administration.


When Ellwood was appointed dean in 2004, he said one of his top priorities was to work on the issue of gender equity at the Kennedy School. In spite of the school’s lower numbers compared to peer institutions over the last academic year, the gender balance has improved during Ellwood’s tenure.

“One of the ways I’d like to be judged is on the progress that happens,” Ellwood says.

Since he took office, Ellwood has more than doubled the number of tenured female faculty and appointed Bane as academic dean.

Ellwood says that he intends to keep working on improving the situation of women faculty, but that he has “no immediate plans.”

Yet many faculty members remain positive.

“Progress is happening, but we started from a very low level,” says Iris Bohnet, director of the Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program. She adds that when she first came to the Kennedy School in 1988, the percentage of female faculty was probably below 10 percent.

Toft says she thinks Ellwood has shown some good will, but that the causes of the problem are difficult to address because some of them are out of the school’s control.

“I do think he’s trying,” she says.

—Staff writer Ariane Litalien can be reached at

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