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The Case for Gender Diversity

By Iris Bohnet and David T. Ellwood

We commend the efforts of both Harvard Kennedy School students and The Crimson to highlight gender diversity and the critical need to expand the representation of women at the School, elsewhere in education, in government, and in all sectors. The Crimson properly points out the role HKS can play in both inspiring more women to participate in government and serving as a model of diverse leadership. As Dean and Academic Dean respectively, and in the case of Iris, as Director of our Women and Public Policy Program, we embrace these goals.

The case for gender equity certainly includes the reasons described in the Crimson. Government does indeed deal with a great many gender-related issues from family planning to abortion, sexual harassment to equal pay, child care to family structure, and domestic violence to rape. And many more policies have a disproportionate impact on women. Women and children far outnumber adult men among the poor in the United States. At the same time, more women than men graduate from college in the United States and many other countries today. Women represent a large percentage of the nation’s teachers, and they are expanding their roles in the military.

Yet the best reason for greater gender equity may be even more fundamental—our nations need the best. We desperately need exceptional public leaders and innovative solutions to the overwhelming public problems facing the world. Any structure that systematically excludes half the population is losing out on the wisdom and insights of some of its most able citizens. Research, some of it conducted at the Kennedy School, demonstrates that more diverse working groups often produce better outcomes. Indeed WAPPP recently held a conference on “Closing the Gender Gap: The Business Case for Organizations, Politics and Society,” demonstrating the value of inclusive approaches in all sectors.

The obvious question is why has progress on faculty diversity been so slow? At the Kennedy School, as in most universities, some of the reasons are obvious. For one, tenured faculty turn over slowly. There are a limited number of new faculty hires each year, and the number qualifying for tenure is even smaller. In addition, most of our faculty are economists or political scientists, disciplines where the potential candidate pool is disproportionately male—there are significantly fewer female than male Ph.D. holders, and most existing faculty are men. Nonetheless, since David became dean, 45 percent of the newly tenured faculty members at HKS have been women, and the percentage of tenured women faculty has grown from 9 percent to 23 percent.

One suggestion for increasing diversity across universities is to look at faculty with less traditional academic backgrounds. At HKS, we already hire leading practitioners as faculty. These searches occur more frequently and the pipeline issues are less problematic. Thus, we have been able to identify and recruit outstanding practitioners and make those appointments in a shorter time frame. As a result, we have been able to attract and appoint a larger number of lecturers and senior lecturers from diverse backgrounds, and 42 percent of these positions are now held by women.

This is real progress, but we still have a long way to go. Drawing on “best practices” to support diversity, including research by our own faculty such as Iris and Professor Hannah Riley Bowles, we have introduced systematic mentoring of junior faculty, which is particularly important in supporting women faculty as they build their careers. And the Kennedy School also allows both leave and extra time to pursue tenure following the birth or adoption of a child and has been doing so for many years.

To attract a diverse pool, we define faculty searches as broadly as possible. Search committees are required to report to the faculty and the deans how they took diversity into consideration. And drawing on the very latest social science research, we are using “gender equality nudges” that have been proven successful in the evaluation process to improve our hiring outcomes. Specifically, we have sought to bundle multiple searches together to avoid some of the challenges faced by all schools that search for a single candidate at a time. Our goal is to find those truly exceptional people who our old systems might have missed.

The ways that policy and political attitudes affect the lives of women is front and center in the public discourse this fall. Harvard Kennedy School is part of that public conversation, and our ideas, students, faculty and alumni/ae are central to the direction attitudes and policy will take in the future. We are as dedicated to excellence through diversity within our own school as we are to the advancement of the ideas of equity and sound public policy in society at large.

David T. Ellwood is Dean and Scott M. Black Professor of Political Economy at Harvard Kennedy School. Iris Bohnet is Academic Dean, Professor of Public Policy, and Director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School.

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