opinion | Cathy Young

The ‘woman problem’ at Harvard

HALF A century after Harvard Business School first opened its doors to women, the school’s leadership is pursuing an ambitious plan to make it more female-friendly. The “gender makeover,” chronicled in a recent front-page feature in The New York Times, includes some straightforward remedies for female underachievement. Unfortunately, the initiative has more dubious aspects that infantilize grown women and men, promote polarization, and compromise women’s accomplishments — while failing to address issues highly relevant to their success.

The business school’s “woman problem” is not an invention. Women, who now make up over a third of the students, arrive at the school with qualifications similar to their male peers’ — but they have tended to lag behind academically, receiving a disproportionately low share of Baker Scholarships given to the top 5 percent of each graduating class. (In 2009, only 11 percent of Baker Scholars were women; in 2010, 20 percent.) Women were doing well on tests, but their grades were suffering due to lower marks for class participation.

In response, the school introduced workshops to help women to speak and raise their hands in class more assertively. One may quibble over specifics (perhaps the workshops should have focused on women who needed intervention, since those who had no problem speaking up found them patronizing). Yet the basic idea is worthwhile: Many women in habitually male-dominated fields are still held back by lack of confidence.


More controversially, the administration also sent stenographers to monitor classes for an objective record of student participation and issued instructors a software tool to keep track of gender patterns in calling on and grading students. Such steps may indeed correct unconscious gender biases — or they may promote favoritism toward women, especially in the context of a campaign to boost women’s grades.

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That campaign has, in fact, succeeded: In the Class of 2013, 40 percent of the Baker Scholarships went to female students. But this laudable result is tainted by suspicions that it is partly due to female-friendly grade inflation. The school would have done far better to experiment with student coaching and wait to see if that would close the performance gap, without the “we are watching you” message to professors.

The Big Sister effect is even more evident in the administrators’ meddlesome concern with students’ social lives — from attempts to discourage partying (for adults of an average age of 27) to mandatory sessions on gender relations that not only men but many women find “forced” and “patronizing” (particularly given the general sense that politically incorrect candor may be hazardous to one’s academic career). At one point, according to the Times report, students were herded into a meeting on sexual harassment after a female student privately told a professor that an unnamed male student had groped her in an off-campus bar months earlier. The conversation stumbled along awkwardly — until one student changed the subject to something that was clearly a far more vital concern: the extent to which social life at the school was influenced by elite status.

Students were particularly irked when an administrator banned the wearing of costumes to class on Halloween, for fear of “sexy pirate” outfits on women. (How ironic when crusaders for equality reinforce traditionalist prudishness and the equally traditionalist notion that women can have either brains or sex appeal.) This prompted class copresident Laura Merrit to ask where the nannying would stop: “Do we have school uniforms?”

Perhaps the most inadvertently hilarious revelation is that the reformist administrators see oppressive male chauvinism in a popular campus game of rating classmates on a “kill, [sleep with], or marry” scale — and are particularly appalled that women play it too. Never mind that curbing such pastimes would require truly Orwellian intrusiveness. There is also the fact that, as Internet commenters were quick to point out, this game is actually the invention of high school girls.


Out in the real world, the biggest challenge facing women in business does not come from crude humor or loutish behavior in bars, but from the work-family dilemma. For men, career success is still linked to romantic success; for women, the equation is far more complex — partly because women as well as men still hold some traditional notions of gender and family roles. That’s the sort of discussion that, if conducted frankly, would help women far more than seminars on sexism.

Cathy Young is a columnist for Newsday and RealClearPolitics.com.