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.”