Why B-Schools Need to Be More Inviting to Women

Harvard welcoming to women

Business schools shouldn’t just teach business per se. Instead, they should teach good business, and many are—hence the increasing focus on ethics, sustainability, and social entrepreneurship.

So why is it that the efforts of one of the sector’s top players, Harvard Business School, to help redress the gender imbalance in the higher echelons of the workplace have been met with what at best is simple criticism and at worst vicious sniping?

An article in last Sunday’s New York Times took an in-depth look at the project launched in 2011 by HBS’s new dean, Nitin Nohria, to improve opportunities for female students, and attempts to eliminate an underlying atmosphere of sexism at the school. While it gave credit to the school for improving female engagement in class and the number of women winning academic awards, the article also cited an apparent feeling among many students that they had been the victim of “intrusive social engineering.” One professor was quoted as asking, “Are we trying to change the world 900 students at a time, or are we preparing students for the world they are about to go into?” The article has led to a number of copycat pieces in major media around the world that concentrate less on the work of Nohria and his team, and more on salacious stories about heavy drinking, misogyny, and Harvard’s “secret” society, Section X.

Harvard is not alone in facing this challenge, and it’s important that such gender equity initiatives are supported as much as possible rather than undermined. If we truly believe that the world’s top business schools are the breeding ground for the next generation of corporate leaders, then trying to shape attitudes in the right way, despite the challenges, is more than just a good idea. It’s critical.

If the business school experience can demonstrate that access to the boardroom or the partnership table should rest on merit and ability rather than on the possession of a Y chromosome and a set of golf clubs, then we may end up with organizations that are both fairer and more effective. Well more than 50 percent more effective, and more profitable to boot, according to a recent report by management consultant McKinsey.

After all, what’s the alternative? If business schools cannot provide the answer to gender imbalance, all we are left with is the blunt instrument of government intervention, such as Norway’s famous 40 percent female director quota, or the altogether more hesitant measures taken by other European countries.

Of course, business school initiatives may not need to be quite so dramatic or wide-ranging as Harvard’s to have real impact. The Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, for example, has recently announced a program called Women Transforming Leadership. This aims to encourage high-potential women to play to their strengths, which may be less common in men, such as the willingness to build meritocratic teams, candor, and empathy toward a wide range of colleagues.

If the program works it may play a part in increasing the engagement of women at all levels of the corporate machine. As the program’s director, Gayle Peterson, puts it: “It’s likely that having female board members results in more female managers, because a hallmark of women leaders is the value they place on developing members of their teams, including other women.”

Whether it’s the pinpoint approach of Saïd or the broad brush of Harvard, surely all business schools should be taking measures to make the corporate world more closely mirror the real one. Because doing nothing is simply not an option.

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