scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Harvard aims to take on gender bias with new initiative

At a time when more companies are focused on reducing inequities between male and female employees, Harvard Business School is positioning itself to become the go-to source for gender-related workplace research.

The Gender Initiative , launched Monday, will bring together the many Harvard Business School academics whose work touches on gender. The collective aims to create a scholarly community, connecting organizations and research in an attempt to spur the advancement of women.

Assumptions about women at work are often based on stereotypes, said Robin Ely, the Harvard Business School professor heading the initiative, and more empirical evidence is necessary to understand why women are less likely to advance into leadership roles than men, for instance, and how the situation can be rectified.


“I’m just always so struck by how much people are relying on gender stereotypes to explain what they’re seeing,” Ely said.

Take the fact that male venture capitalists have been shown to consistently outperform their female colleagues. Many assume that women are less successful because they don’t take as many risks, but according to research by Ely’s colleague Paul Gompers, the gap can be explained by good old-fashioned networking. The field is dominated by men, who support and mentor one another, while women reap far fewer of these benefits.

The initiative will also sponsor and promote work such as a study released Monday by another Harvard Business School professor, Kathleen McGinn. The survey, which polled 50,000 adults in 25 nations, found that women with working mothers earned more and had more powerful jobs than adult daughters whose mothers stayed home when their children were young.

In the United States, women with working mothers earned 23 percent more than women whose mothers did not work. Having a working mother did not have an effect on men in the workplace, according to the study, but US men who had working mothers spent almost twice as much time on family and child-care tasks as those from more traditional families.


“The fact that we have now a gender initiative makes us all feel more connected to each other,” Ely said, “and our hope is that our research collectively will have more impact.”

Gender bias is not as blatant as it once was, but the fact that it is more subtle can mean it is more insidious, according to a recent book by researchers from Boston University and Brandeis University. If women don’t realize that the playing field is uneven, the researchers said, they tend to stop speaking up and may even blame themselves for losing out on promotions.

A number of efforts to study gender inequality at work have popped up in recent years. The City of Boston is in the midst of collecting salary data from more than 60 local companies to analyze wage differences between men and women. Last year, the Patrick administration started a fellowship program to place women in state managerial jobs, with the aim of helping them gain experience to reach high-level executive positions.

As an outgrowth of that initiative, Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business issued a corporate challenge to encourage companies to promote and retain women employees and board members.

Despite all the attention being paid to women in the workplace, more needs to be done to show the importance of achieving gender equity, according to Catalyst Inc., a New York nonprofit that works to increase opportunities for women and business. And having one of the nation’s most prestigious universities on the case doesn’t hurt.


“With women making up only 4.6 percent of CEOs in the S&P 500,” said Jan Combopiano, Catalyst’s chief knowledge officer, “we’re still a long way off from parity in leadership spots.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.