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Put Aggression Out of Business

Ending fundamental gender inequality requires more than just “training”

By Reed E. McConnell

The Business School’s recent initiative to root out gender inequality is not as useful as it may seem

Reading the recent New York Times article about gender equity at Harvard Business School left me with a protracted headache. The discussions reflected in the article, multimedia videos, and comments mostly seemed to revolve around whether or not the administration should have implemented an initiative to eliminate gender inequality in the first place, rather than accepting this as a given and critiquing the initiative’s methodology. But if we ignore these extremely basic discussions and start with the baseline that yes, gender is important and a source of systemic inequalities and no, in a general sense, it is not good to ignore gender-based achievement gaps in educational institutions, we are poised to address the problems with the initiative.

The most glaring problem with the initiative is that it seemed to be very focused on re-educating women about how to act, assert themselves, and make decisions about their lives. Women are constantly being taught that our normal, accustomed ways of behaving are somehow deviant and need editing. We always need editing, and if we want to be taken seriously this editing is usually supposed to result in us looking and acting more like men. Speaking softly is bad, not interrupting people if we want them to listen to us is bad, and not taking up more space than we need is bad.

However, I would argue that these traits are only seen as negative because they are the opposite of the corresponding masculine traits (speaking loudly, interrupting people, taking up space), and they are only detrimental to women because they allow women to be trodden upon if those women are in an aggressive environment. And the Business School is certainly an aggressive place. But it’s not necessary to force people to listen to you if they are respectful and thoughtful enough to voluntarily listen to you in the first place. This is why the program should have instead been focused on re-educating aggressive men, on teaching them to be quiet every so often and listen to what others have to say, to stop taking up unnecessary space (both physical and metaphorical), and to not assume that the words in their head are the most important words in the room.

If the administration fails to teach the men at HBS these things, regardless of what they teach the women, corporate culture will not shift. Aggression and domination will remain keystones of this culture, and will continue to manifest themselves in nasty ways. And women will continue be the butt of these manifestations, whether or not they have learned to be more aggressive, simply because that is how social narratives of male aggression run. Women are the proper targets. But if we work toward cutting out the centrality of domination in the corporate world, we might actually see changes in gender parity without requiring that women bear the brunt of that change.

But beyond questions of the initiative’s methodology, I want to resist the idea that diversifying oppressive and inequality-inducing institutions is ever going to make systemic and truly progressive change. For the same reason that I could never get properly excited about women being allowed to fight at the front lines in the military, I cannot get properly excited about gender diversity at the Business School.

Where gender disparity is concerned, I think the deeper question isn’t how to graduate more women from this school. The way to solve gender inequities in our country and wider world is not to strengthen the institutions that are forcing millions of women into lifetimes of labor for extremely small amounts of money, just as the way to solve gender inequity in our culture is not to push women to imitate men. Contemporary American corporations frequently work to dismantle labor unions, which are often the only real advocates for women who are being harassed, discriminated against, and mistreated in their workplaces. The growing power of corporations contributes to a culture of commodification where things like healthcare are seen as a product rather than a right, and poor women bear the brunt of this when they cannot afford contraception or other necessities for their reproductive health. Large corporations often go overseas for cheap labor and end up exploiting the largely female poor, as women make up 70 percent of all people living in poverty around the world.

When we are talking about Harvard Business School, we are talking about wealth. Period. So, while I hate to see gender inequality anywhere, I don’t think that having more women in Fortune 500 boardrooms who’ve been trained to ape aggressive men is going to significantly shift the sexism rooted our culture, or shift the deep, systemic gender inequalities tied to class that continue to put almost inescapable burdens on women around the world. Gender is a class issue. Gender is a race issue. Harvard Business School is built not only on the principle of inequality of admission—attendance for the select few—but on the principle that once students leave, they will aggressively continue to perpetuate national and international inequalities. So, we must ask, can such an institution really serve as a site of progress?

Reed McConnell ’15 is a Social Anthropology and Germanic languages and literatures concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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