Tackling Gender Inequality at HBS: A Case Study

Six years ago, Harvard Business School embarked on one of the most ambitious case studies in its 108-year history. The case: gender inequality. The protagonist: itself.
By Julia E. DeBenedictis

Harvrad Business School.
Harvrad Business School. By Karen Zhou

Six years ago, Harvard Business School embarked on one of the most ambitious case studies in its 108-year history. The case: gender inequality. The protagonist: itself.

Gender inequality in the business world has long been a topic of conversation and research among academics, but it was only a few short years ago that these issues came to a head at one of the world’s most influential business institutions.

A 2013 New York Times article revealed gender discrimination in the school’s classrooms, sexism female students faced at social gatherings, and, perhaps most glaring, numbers showing that female students were not performing as well as their male counterparts.

Biases were also apparent in the curriculum. In 2014, a mere nine to 10 percent of the case studies produced at the Business School produced featured a female protagonist.

The imbalance has been longstanding among professors, too. Just six years earlier, in 2007, there was a “mass exodus” of female faculty—nine of 28 junior female faculty members left.

However, when Business School Dean Nitin Nohria took the helm in 2010, gender inequality was one problem he pledged to address. He, alongside University President Drew G. Faust, promised to rework gender relations at the school.

Since then, Nohria has committed to doubling the number of female protagonists in case studies by 2019. Just last year, the school launched the Gender Initiative, a research-based initiative that aims to promote the advancement of women in business.

The efforts seem to be bearing fruit. Both the achievement gap and satisfaction gap have been closed across male and female Business School students, according to Senior Associate Dean and chair of the MBA program Felix Oberholzer-Gee.

Faculty hiring, spearheaded by Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Planning and Recruiting Frances X. Frei, has seen improvements. But the school has a way to go before it sees gender equity in its highest level of professors.


At the “50 Years of Women at Harvard Business School” gala event in 2014, hosted by the school’s Northern California association, Nohria announced a concrete goal in the mission for gender equality: double the number of female protagonists in the school’s case studies. Prior to this, only nine to 10 percent of the cases the Business School produced featured a woman protagonist, meaning that the case was written about a scenario in which the central decision-maker was a woman.

The discrepancy has been largely attributed to the fact that many of the cases deal with the highest levels of management, and thus draw from a field that is notoriously dominated by men.

Still, women made up 41 percent of the MBA class of 2015—a number far greater than the number of women protagonists about which they learned.

And it was not just the Business School’s student population that saw such discrepancies.

The Business School is the leader in case study production globally, producing more than 80 percent of the cases sold to business schools around the world. This global reach means the Business School’s influence extends far beyond its Allston campus.

Increasing female protagonists may seem like a small step in a large problem, but several people, both students and faculty, said it is “symbolic” for female students.

In terms of reaching the goal for female protagonists, Nohria said the Business School has “already made progress” and that “the slopes are all positive, and if you project the slopes out then I have great confidence that we will actually meet that goal.”

Other measures were taken in the classroom to foster an environment of gender equity, such as the installation of notetakers who track participation in each class to ensure participation is fairly graded, Frei said. The notetakers are in every course for first-year students and a number of second-year classes, per the professor’s request.

Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Planning and Recruiting Frances X. Frei.
Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Planning and Recruiting Frances X. Frei. By Sidni M. Frederick

Before, classes were conducted more informally—professors standing at the front of the class, students at their seats with name placards in front of them, and instructors ready to “cold call” on someone for an answer. Such teaching is the traditional method used in business schools.

However, professors typically would not consider what students said in class. Rather, after class, once they sat down to do the grading, professors would recall from memory how each of the students performed. Frei said often times, male students can be more assertive than female students, which in many cases, translates to a better participation grade when being scored by memory.

Additionally, Frei said the Business School added different class formats to the curriculum. Previously, she said the school used to only hold large discussions. Now, Frei says there are smaller, experimental discussions that “allows more people to do well.”


If the gaps between male and female students have begun to close, they remain wide in the Business School’s faculty.

Currently, there are only 21 full-time female professors, compared to the 81 male professors at the same level. Among associate and assistant professors, men still outnumber their female colleagues 45 to 32. Indeed, in the faculty as a whole, there are only 69 women to 209 men.

Frei said she and her team, which normally hires 20 to 25 individuals each year, noticed that, unbeknownst to the school, the Business School had been hiring men at the assistant level at twice the rate of women.

“I don’t know what the right number is, if it should be 50-50 or what,” she said, “but this number certainly didn’t feel right.”

Frei began troubleshooting, and what she found was that men were accepting faculty positions at a significantly higher rate than women. In the past three years, however, Frei said her team has hired just as many women as men for the first time in the school’s history.

“Bringing over tenured women is extremely difficult. We have had much better success bringing over tenured men than tenured women, and I think we’ve been applying the same techniques,” Frei said. “Now, we’re looking at [hiring numbers] by the data and seeing that the same techniques applied to everyone is yielding a gap in our success rate. So we’re wondering ‘why?’ We’re in the early stages of that.”

Typically aimed at new assistant professors, these hiring techniques include broad advertising to a variety of institutions, an annual conference in which 15 to 20 prospective faculty are invited for an interview, and an in-depth campus visit for five to eight of the remaining interviewees.

While the Business School is making a concerted effort to attract more equal numbers of male and female faculty to the school, discrepancies in faculty experience remain.

“We have even bigger satisfaction gaps [among faculty], and we don’t know about the achievement,” Frei said. “We conspicuously don’t know about the achievement. It feels like no one has done the analysis.”

While achievement gaps among students are easier to observe through comparing GPAs of male and female students, Frei said achievement gaps are less clear among faculty.

Frei pointed to a 2012 University-wide faculty climate survey in which junior male faculty at the Business School reported being happier than their female counterparts.

For professor of manufacturing Janice H. Hammond—one of the 21 senior female faculty members—the fact that there are more than 20 women at the professor level is a victory. At the time she joined the Business School’s faculty in 1984, women comprised only seven percent of faculty.

“I’m thrilled every time another woman crosses that bar,” Hammond wrote in an email. “The growth has not been as rapid as I would have liked, and we have lost some outstanding women over the years, but the number in the pipeline has increased steadily.”


In the year since its creation a project called the Gender Initiative has helped raise awareness of gender imbalance at the Business School through the program’s research that aims to promote the advancement of women in business.

The initiative, spearheaded by Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community Robin J. Ely, gathers data that dispels common misconceptions about women in business and the workplace and provides this data to external companies and the school itself.

“So much of what people are saying about women and gender in the business world is simply not supported by the data,” Ely said. “We really want to help people understand the circumstances in which gender-based differences in performances occur.”

Angela C. Winkle, former co-president of the Business School’s Women’s Student Association, which works closely with Ely to disseminate Gender Initiative information, said she has seen an increased level of awareness surrounding gender issues at the school.

“I think you’ll see some professors who are very explicit and market the course saying it’s 50-50 male and female cases,” she said.

The WSA, which hosts events and speaker series throughout the year, does even more work behind the scenes.

According to newly elected WSA co-president Hillary B. Maxwell, the WSA’s academics committee seeks to bring female students together to foster discussion with like-minded students who “have a lot of prowess in specific topics like finance or investing.”

This committee, Maxwell said, organizes female-led activities such as review sessions before finals.

Recently, the Student Association, the Business School’s student governing body, elected for the first time in the school’s history two female co-presidents—Libby Z. Leffler and LaToya Marc.

Leffler and Marc have not yet mapped out their complete platform of initiatives, but they emphasized that an inclusive school environment is high on their list of priorities.

The gender initiative and Nohria's case study goals have made a notable impact on campus, some students and faculty said. Hammond has observed cultural shifts in the school since the 1980s and wrote she “often found it challenging” to be at HBS during that time, but that “she wanted to make it work.” Now, she said, the school is much more supportive of a diverse faculty and student body, there is consistent collaboration between men and women in research, and there are more women in leadership roles.

“The policies are important, but without the ongoing changes to the culture, I don’t think as many women could thrive here as they can today,” Hammond wrote. “It’s still not perfect, but we continue to make substantial progress.”

–Staff writer Julia E. DeBenedictis can be reached at julia.debenedictis@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Julia_DeBene.

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