Why Men Outperform Women at HBS

Is there an academic gender gap at Harvard Business School?

Apparently so. A new study has found that proportionally more men than women receive academic honors at Harvard and that has been the case for many years.

Though women accounted for 36% of Harvard’s Class of 2009, only 11% of the school’s Baker Scholars were female. That honor is given to students who are in the top 5% of HBS’ graduating class. Meantime, only 21% of the first year honors (for being in the top 20%) for the class were awarded to women and only 22% of the second year honors were given to women.

The gap narrowed only slightly last year for the Class of 2010, according to the study. Though women accounted for 38% of the class, only 20% of the Baker Scholars were female–a gap of some 18 percentage points. Just 23% of the first year honors for the class were given to women and 28% of the second year honors were awarded to female MBA students.

What makes these differences even more striking is that the study at Harvard found that women place more importance on academics than men and spend significantly more time preparing for class.

Apparently, it’s not merely an issue at Harvard Business School. A recent study by Harvard students found “a similarly marked academic gender gap” at eight peer business schools. “However, there is little to no awareness of the issue at other schools, especially among students,” the study found. “Women’s groups at other schools tend to focus almost exclusively on career oriented efforts or increasing the percentage of women in the student body.” Some of those peer schools, unidentified in the study, have 20-plus percentage point gaps between the percentage of female students and the number of women receiving academic honors.

At Harvard, the gender gap first came to light in a story published last year by the student newspaper, The Harbus. ”I read it with shock, recalls Kat Shaul, then a first-year student. “It was never something I had thought about, and I certainly didn’t expect the gap to be that wide.” The story galvanized a group of five second-year women, including Shaul, to examine the problem in more detail. Among other things, they found that the performance gap has occurred for many years. Though 34% of Harvard’s Class of 2008 were women, for example, only 16% of the Baker Scholars were women.

Not surprisingly, there has been some immediate improvement after the issue gained visibility in the past year. For the Class of 2011, in which 36% is female, 30% of women had won first year honors—significantly better than the 23% in 2010 or the 21% in 2009. “Some of the awareness around the issue has probably helped everyone—faculty and students–to narrow the gap,” believes Andrea Ellwood, another student involved in the study.

But the group’s report found other problems. “Our study suggest that men have a better academic experience than women at HBS,” the authors said. “Thus, although women may be nearing parity in average academic performance, they do not view their experience as positively as men do. This is in stark contrast to findings from academic literature on gender and happiness, which show that on average women report greater life satisfaction than men.”

What’s behind the gap? The students discovered that women tend to hang back in classroom discussions—which typically account for half the grades at Harvard. “Women reported significantly less comfort with class participation than men did,” the study found. “Some women may feel less comfortable participating due to their perceived difference in academic and professional backgrounds from their male peers. Additionally, women often struggle to balance social and professional relationships; many women admit to self-editing in the classroom to manage their out-of-classroom image.”

  • Minority Male

    As a minority male who attended HBS I think what HBS Chic wrote is what I experienced. Some of my most outspoken classmates were women. And most women in my classes were not shrinking violets as the article/study suggests. Also, I know many males who were “uncomfortable” with speaking out during class as well. This is a phenomenon not exclusive to females. The key to success in the forced-curve HBS classroom was not speaking up, but speaking up at the right time with the right comment. The HBS professors I spoke to about this said that the most skilled would simply wait out the discussion until they recognized a key inflection point and then they raised their hand to turn the conversation. I spoke with many professors about this skill to learn more about it and frankly I could never master it, though I did manage to never get a failing grade and I did score some top grades.

    The people who had this skill were truly gifted and were obviously among the most talented in the class, in my experience. I don’t think that I ever thought they had “the inside scoop” as others have suggested here simply because they were connected and/or white males who had generations of experience behind them. I agree that as a minority male without a history of high achievers or mentors in business among my family or friends that I didn’t have the experiential background that many of my white male and female classmates had, but I do not feel that I was therefore uniquely unable to master the participation skill required at HBS to perform the best. I learned enough to not perform among the worst, and occasionally among the best. Now I am on my 4th successful startup in 5 years (for-profit and not-for-profit). These experiences don’t seem to be realized in the research noted in this article, though obviously I am not a female. I think there is more going on than the research and article are aware of.

  • Ben

    Jim thats a pretty big inference leap to be making especially given that the whole point of this article is that minority groups were simply “less comfortable” participating in class which led to the lowered marks. The comfort issues dont necessary mean that they were less prepared, it could be simply due to the minority labelling to begin with. Boy I really hope they dont admit people with that kind of logic into top b-schools.

  • Rjschundlr

    Men tend to be at the top and bottom more that women who tend to be in the mid ranges …

  • Bach Tran

    This is easily explained in that there are more male geniuses than female geniuses. At high levels of education such as at Harvard, it is only natural that men will typically rank higher.

    Intelligence is mostly carried on the X chromosome which makes men more susceptible to being a genius- or a retard, conversely.

  • HandsomeMan

    HBS will likely become majority female over time – it’s inevitable if there are 132 female college grads for every 100 male college grads. So it’s entirely plausible to think that in 50 years, we might have the opposite problem.

  • HBS chick

    Ok. I normally don’t whip out my phone to comment on an article but this is utter bs. I am an HBS grad and frankly some of the most outspoken people were women. Perhaps it is HOW the profs are distinguishing and counting comments towards the participatory grade should be more heavily scrutinized. I am an Asian frmale minority and sat next to three other Asian girls in a class and we realized the prof was attributing points to the wrong girls. A lot of times profs mark down who spoke after class is over and based purely from memory. Perhaps those whose comments were not as memorable were forgotten (which could include women) but I’d hardly say the HBS women I knew were timid types who were worried about their self image or juggling their “social calendar”. This study is perpetuating negative stereotypes that I personally never saw when I was there.

  • Jim

    Pretty clear case to me that affirmative action has led to accepting of lesser prepared students from protected classes. Why is it then surprising that those people will not perform as well in the classroom? It is kind of sad that the honors awarding system was then changed to give a ‘fairer’ split between men and women.

  • Bruce Vann

    Cool beans.

  • Argento

    I was talking about the article, not about your comment.
    Maybe I didn’t make my point clear, I just wanted to say that maybe were are thinking the wrong way. The article doesn’t say men and women should perform the same, but it clearly infers it; it wouldn’t be a problem to analyze otherwise. It’s not questioning why they perform different but why they don’t perform the same. I think we should, if something, question the first, not the second.
    Regarding IQ and that list well, maybe there is a correlation, but what’s behind that? Couldn’t it be that most educational systems are based in the same philosophy as the IQ test so the successful ones, by that system, are the ones that perform better in the mentioned test? And what are real life achivements? The only universally accepted right is the right to happiness, and the most popular human goal is to be happy, but high people with IQs tend to be less happy, as studies show, does that make them more or less successful? If the greatest human achievement is to be happy then people with high IQs are successful in a lot of things but not in the most important one. And I can cite Sportsmen, Artists, Celebrities, and a lot of people with average IQ’s who have more life achievements than most people with PhDs…
    I repeat, are we thinking the right way, are we making the right questions, or are we just thinking how they told us and asking what they expected us to ask. If you consider being successful living how someone tells you to, achieving what some people expect you to and thinking how they “taught” you too it’s OK; I just don’t share that vision.

  • JD


    I am a minority too; and I can tell you even though i have admission to many top business schools, I am not as well prepared as the top end white male. i accept that i was given admission as part of a social program… i also accept that many white males have more “inside” info on how the system works and how to leverage their strengths better. if you’ve had three generations or more of business leaders in your household you are more likely to be a better business leader…

    i am not sure if admission to a top-10 program will make me a better leader or if it was fair that i gained acceptance… but i am not fooled by how the admissions system works and why i gained admission… my background had as much to do with the admissions decision as anything. it is inherently lopsided – whether it should change or not is a discussion for a different day…

  • Bruce Vann


    Perhaps I missed it. Who argued that men and women have to perform the same? The article just tries to come up with reasons for why they do not perform the same.

    I raised the point of IQ not to defend it and say that it is the golden key answer. When I saw the difference in academic outcomes I searched for something or things that might explain it and then I asked whether or not it’s viable.

    You said, “And last, is the IQ test, well isn’t it just bullshit? It reflects nothing, is totally biased, purely cultural and it has no correlation with anything.”

    I don’t think that it is. Here’s how I look at IQ. It doesn’t mean that Sam is way smarter than Joey because Sam’s IQ is 145 and Joey’s is 120. What it says instead is that the overall population of persons with 145 IQ’s will generally be smarter than the overall population of persons with 125 IQ’s. Even in this article they’re not talking about individuals. They’re talking about the general population. Here’s a parrallel. I work for a car insurance company and am also insured by that company. They cannot tell when my next accident will be nor would they try to. But they can say that the general population of 25 year old men with such and such credit who live in state X will tend to have roughly Y accidents with Z total payouts. I think it’s the same thing for IQ therefore I doubt that it’s “bull shit.”

    Average adult IQs associated with real-life accomplishments:[5]

    MDs or PhDs 125
    College graduates 115
    1–3 years of college 105-110
    Clerical and sales workers 100-105
    High school graduates, skilled workers (e.g., electricians, cabinetmakers) 100
    1–3 years of high school (completed 9–11 years of school) 95
    Semi-skilled workers (e.g., truck drivers, factory workers) 90-95
    Elementary school graduates (completed eighth grade) 90
    Elementary school dropouts (completed 0–7 years of school) 80-85
    Have 50/50 chance of reaching high school 75

    I’m no genius but that looks like a correlation to me.

  • Johnnie Welker

    this is always men’s fault; always.

    I would concur with William above. I just don’t understand women need to be helped out all the time, even though they are graduating 60% of the classes now.

    So what will be the solution: change curriculum?

    I just wonder when enough will be enough.

  • Argento

    You’ve all said very interesting things, especially William, and I’d like to share a few thoughts.
    Why do women and men have to perform the same? Do we make the evaluation methods so perfect that the results must be as we expect them? Or are even these expectations realistic? What do IQ tests really reflect?
    First, men and women are different so, same question, why do they have to perform the same? Second, are we only considering results or also evaluation methods? Because as long as I know the results depend, not only of what you measure, but also how you measure. Third, is there anything that says that results should be like that. I mean, if you let go something it will fall, gravity is undeniable, so theories can come up explaining this, with no certainty that they are entirely true, but with the certainty that their results are at least verifiable. So, are these results undeniable too? And last, is the IQ test, well isn’t it just bullshit? It reflects nothing, is totally biased, purely cultural and it has no correlation with anything. I mean, the highest IQ belongs to a women who most people don’t know because, what has she achieved? Who has she helped? I have an IQ of 165, Einstein had one of 160 and I still find it difficult to understand the general theory of relativity… I don’t believe Gandhi or Mother Theresa had high IQ’s, but reading what they’ve done or what they’ve said just blows your mind off.
    Men and women are different, so as long as we don’t keep this in mind it is a futile discussion. We shouldn’t be asking ourselves why do ones perform better than others but, are they both performing as well as they can? That’s the real diversity, having different people, with different backgrounds and different experiences, but with the same opportunities to give their bests. Who gets better grades, jobs or whatever, shouldn’t be the discussion, but if we are giving everyone the opportunities he or she deserves – regardless of gender, nationality, race, etc. Anything that drives us away from that, in one direction or other, is just counterproductive.

  • Workshops and “conversations” can’t contrive
    An answer to the mystery called drive;
    Studies and programs are but broken stone
    For nature’s steamroller, testosterone.

  • Arthur Dullsworthy

    @William Foster, Word

  • Bruce Vann

    JD, as a minority I don’t want to accept that but it may be true or it may not be true. But keep in mind that people subconsciously tend to look out for and see the best in people who are similar to them. So the most exclusive cirlces of the most talented people will still have a tendency to recruit others that are similar to those already in those circles. For instance just by being in circles of bankers one person gains cultural exposure to how they think and what tends to make them good b-school students. Therefore, if bankers are overwhelmingly white and male others who have little to no exposure to that culture will have to adjust (regardless of how intelligent or articulate they are).

    I wonder if the overall pool of men is smarter than the overall pool of women and that difference plays out in the performance of selected students. I’m not arguing that guys are better than girls or vice versa. I just remember that though statistically girls have higher IQ’s than men but men tend to have higher perportions at the extreme ends of IQ distribution. So of persons beyond a certain high level of intelligence you would likely see more men.

    Here’s the exact quote so that no one thinks I made this up.
    “IQ tests, regarded by psychometricians as measures of intelligence, have shown that differences between men and women are minimal or negligible, but men are often overrepresented at extreme scores, both very high and very low.” Found here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_and_psychology

  • William Foster

    Why is it when the gap favors men the cause is some external force that disadvantages women but when the gap favors women it is the way it should be.

    Overall in academia women far outperform men. Every article I read blames men for their under-performance. They don’t work as hard, they play too many video games, they’re most of the learning disabled population, they’re more active than girls, etc. The environment is never the problem, it is mens’ failure to adapt to the environment that is the problem. Contrasted with this article where everything is to blame except for the women, the double standard is stunning.

    Recently news broke that women have now attained more graduate level degrees than men. For every 2 men than graduate from college there will be 3 women and the gap is getting greater, not smaller. Where are the articles expressing concern for the performance of men in education? They don’t exist. Instead we get snarky, sexist articles that denigrate men for their under performance: “In College, Women are Leaving Men in the Dust!” – NYT, “The End of Men” -The Atlantic, “Where Have All the Good Men Gone?” The WSJ, “Are Boys the Weaker Sex?” US News&WR

  • JD

    Well said Bruce:

    I was just about to post. What’s remarkable is that the article blatantly states but continues to go down the wrong path. It’s time to just accept it that diversity in the classroom may mean giving minorities (women) a helping hand in the admissions game – the difference in performance in the classroom bears this out. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Why try to backward fit your model when it’s so blatant what’s going on.

  • Bruce Vann

    HBS is case based and other schools not as much (accept for maybe Darden). They notice this problem at HBS and the most pertinent reason for it there seems to be hesitancy to speak about cases. But the thing is that 8 other schools noticed this (we don’t know which ones). I therefore assume that it has less to do with speaking up in class.