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

    Bruce,
    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.