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Newest MBA Boys’ Club Isn’t What You Think

The Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley

On a glorious late-autumn day, groups of 20-somethings begin to gather around circular metal tables in a courtyard between buildings at the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business. The groups — composed of mainly men — talk quietly amongst themselves. Every few minutes laughter bursts from one of the tables. “Let’s go around and introduce ourselves,” says Patrick Ford, a tall second-year student in the full-time MBA program. “Tell us your name, your class year, why you are here today, and why you care about gender equity.”

John, a brave second-year, goes first. After spirited answers to the first three prompts, he moves to the real reason he and dozens of other men have chosen to gather here with their lunches. “Why do I care about gender equity?” John begins. “I used to say it’s because my wife is in a male-dominated field, but then I realized you don’t have to have someone you care about to care about women and gender equity. I’m here because it matters. It’s about fairness. And I want to learn more about what I can do.”

“Amen,” Ford responds. And the tone for the next hour is set.

‘MANBASSADING’ GOES BEYOND SIMPLY PLACING MORE WOMEN IN SEATS

The “Manbassadors,” which held its first “Guy Talk” meeting in November of 2015, is one of the newest student-run organizations at Berkeley Haas. In the past year, the club has grown from Ford and a few others meeting in Ford’s Berkeley apartment to more than 90 men and women attending monthly on-campus lunch meetings. It’s also part of a nationwide effort to make business school a more gender-equitable place. Most recently, the Forte Foundation, the leading organized gender equity force for MBA programs, announced a “Men as Allies” initiative to engage and organize similar manbassador clubs at dozens of elite B-schools both in and outside the U.S.

Regardless, similar to clubs at other B-schools, the Haas Manbassadors is an offshoot of the school’s main women-led gender equity club, the Women in Leadership Club, which Ford joined when he arrived on campus. Haas, like many other top U.S. B-schools, has recently made an effort to increase the enrollment of women in its full-time MBA program. When the Class of 2015 arrived at Berkeley-Haas in 2013, the percentage of women was at 29% — down from 32% the year before. This sparked a highly effective student-led Gender Equity Initiative to increase the number of women entering Berkeley Haas; for the entering class in the fall of 2014, that number reached 43% — a record. This year the percentage dropped to 38%, but Wharton and Dartmouth’s Tuck School enrolled record-setting amounts of women at 44% — leading a handful of top schools to enroll more than 40% women, including Harvard (43%), Yale (43%), Booth (42%), Northwestern (41%), and Stanford (41%).

While placing more women in seats might make the aesthetics of B-school more gender equitable, it doesn’t automatically create a totally different environment — especially if the majority of professors are men and the majority of case studies focus male protagonists. Enter the manbassadors.

UNCONSCIOUS BIAS TOUGHER TO CONFRONT THAN ‘THE BOYS IN THE ROOM WITH CIGARS’

“All of this is just a natural outgrowing of the amazing work women have been doing for years and generations,” Ford, known as the “vice president manbassador” at Haas, tells Poets&Quants for the lunchtime “Guy Talk” meeting. Since last autumn, the Haas manbassadors have created a 16-page “Things to Know” guide, a “Manbassador Commitments” page, and a weekly “Five Sentences” email to send to manbassadors.

“The purpose of this guide is to point out common situations we see around Haas and the unintentional behavior patterns that we believe most men share,” says the opening paragraphs of the guide, which reads like a how-to manual, business case study, and inclusion manifesto all at once. “Even men who have been working on this for years still don’t do things perfectly.”

Within the guide are tips ranging from how to avoid things like “mansplaining” to paying attention to subtleties like who speaks most in classroom and group discussions. It also encourages taking Haas professor Kellie McElhaney’s course, The Business Case for Investing in Women. For Ford, who authored the guide and created the weekly email blasts with “extraordinary manbassador” Mike Matheson, B-school is not the boys’ club it has long been seen as. But improvements still can and should be made.

“At Haas, I don’t think it’s about the boys’ club,” Ford says. “I think it’s all of the subconscious tendencies and ways guys don’t realize that they are thinking about and treating women differently. For me that’s the real push and in some ways, it’s harder to confront than the ‘boys in the room with cigars.’ Because you can identify and talk to them. But when you have guys with good intentions accidentally making decisions that discriminate against women, that to me is the real challenge of our time at Haas.”

CALL FOR MEN TO JOIN THE GENDER EQUITY CONVERSATION

Fellow second-year MBA Erin Robinson says a “cultural survey” conducted “a few years ago” by the Gender Equity Initiative asked Haas women to rate how they felt on campus and in classrooms. “The word ‘fratty’ came up,” Robinson tells Poets&Quants. “It felt like there was this ‘fratty’ vibe at a lot of our social events.”

Changes were made — mainly moving past admissions, Robinson says.

“We have opened up the focus to more than admissions,” says Robinson, who is the co-president for the Women in Leadership group at Haas. “We now look at it all the way through the process — from pre-Haas and admissions to the time during Haas to post-Haas.”

And a big piece of that requires men to join the conversation.

“When we talk about gender equity and women in leadership, I think a lot of times it’s referred to as a ‘women’s issue’ that we’re trying to solve,” Robinson says. “And to me, that’s not the right approach. I think it’s more of a people issue. And men are half of that equation.”

Robinson’s Women in Leadership co-president, Farrah Dilber, sees it the same way.

“If business schools wanted to, they could be 100% women,” Dilber says. “As soon as one business school hits a new high water mark of percentage of women, it’s easy for a competitor school to one-up them.”

Dilber says B-school administrators and faculty should move on to look at the gender of faculty and protagonists in case studies.

“Once women get there, what is their actual experience in the classroom, career search, and socially?” Dilber continues. “And how does that make them evangelists or ambassadors of their program, or not? When other women ask, ‘What is it like to be a woman at Tuck or Haas or wherever?’ what are the answers they can expect? Because that is the long-term game — making a place where women thrive, not just where they have a seat.”