Is Gender Inequality Only An HBS Problem?

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by John A. Byrne on

Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School

The New York Times has stirred up quite a hornet’s nest with its front page story on gender issues at the Harvard Business School. Dozens of other publications and bloggers have riffed on the Sunday (Sept. 8) piece which has attracted more than 200 comments from readers (See Section X: Harvard’s Ultra-Wealthy, Mostly Male Secret Society).

Many of these readers are current MBA students or graduates of rival business schools who claim that some of the most egregious behavior described in the Times article doesn’t occur in their MBA programs. Alumni and students of Wharton, Chicago, Kellogg, NYU, Cornell and Dartmouth Tuck insist that the cultures of their schools are far more welcoming to women than at Harvard.

Typical of these responses is one from a person describing herself as a current MBA student at Wharton. “Honestly there hasn’t been one moment of perceived gender inequality,” she wrote. “We have 42% women (much higher than every other top business program, both this year and historically) and have the support and encouragement to be successful. There is no competition, no bigotry, no feelings of inferiority to our male counterparts. It baffles me that in 2013 they would have to have a whole equality program at a place like HBS. This is yet another reason why Wharton is head and shoulders a better institution than HBS.”


But is sexism and misogyny only a Harvard Business School problem? That’s highly doubtful. When HBS administrators first discovered these issues at the school a few years ago, they called their colleagues at several other MBA programs, only to confirm that what they were seeing in Boston was also an issue in Palo Alto, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago.

In fact, when the academic gender gap came to light at Harvard several years ago, a 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.

That study was prompted after the discovery that although 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.


In that same year at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, graduating female MBAs accounted for only 19% of those who were named Arjay Miller Scholars, those in the top 10% of Stanford’s class by academic grades. Yet, women made up 34% of the Class of 2009. So there was a 15 percentage point difference at Stanford.

It’s worth noting that despite the Times’ account, Harvard has made major progress and so has Stanford. Both schools reported that women actually received a higher percentage of academic honors than their actual representation in the Class of 2013.  A record 38% of this year’s Baker Scholars in Harvard’s Class of 2013 were women. At Stanford, 40% of this year’s Arjay Miller Scholars were women.

Of course, the academic gender gap is only one of the issues explored in the Times story. Just as important, if not more so, is the fact that many women felt less than welcome in the male-dominated culture of the school. Yet even here, Harvard has made great strides. This year, for example, 41% of the entering class at Harvard Business School is female, up from 28% in 1995. That level of representation in an MBA class is among the highest of any highly selective full-time MBA program.

It’s just another reference point in the discussion and proof that most of what was described in the Times article is in the past tense.



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