Megan Lesko, who worked on the study, caulks it up to the difference between men and women. “Women tend to self censor themselves a bit more,” says Lesko. “In a class of 90 people with a fast-moving discussion, the person who gets called on is the person who gets his hand up first. Women just tend to take slightly more time to carefully construct what they want to say out loud. That’s challenging. You can very quickly get into this spiral where if you don’t get a comment in today, you need to say something the next class. And you add more and more pressure on yourself to speak. A lot of women fall into that trap. Women generally just feel less confident and less prepared, even if they spend more time preparing for the class the night before.”
Adds Shaul: “It’s scary for anyone in their first year to speak in front of 90 people, but it’s something you’ve got to get over.” One solution now in place: “Participation workshops” for new women held by faculty and second-year students to encourage more active classroom behavior.
Another possible reason why women feel less comfortable in Harvard classes is that male students are significantly more likely to have technical or business undergraduate degrees than women as well as slightly higher scores on the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). On the other hand, the researchers found that women have slightly higher undergraduate grade point averages than male students at Harvard.
Although it was left unexamined, the dearth of female business school professors at Harvard is another factor to consider. Currently, only 17 of 93 full professors at HBS are women and only two out of 11 high-level management practice professors at HBS are women. Some 11 of the school’s 45 associate professors are female as well as 16 of Harvard’s 43 assistant professors. In every professorial category, the percentage of women who teach at HBS is far below the percentage of women enrolled as MBA students.
While pleased with the improvement in the most recent figures, the second-year students who conducted the study plan to keep the pressure on. Before heading off for jobs at McKinsey & Co., Bain, and Colgate-Palmolive, they are now recruiting first-year students to take up the cause next year. They’re sending out the results of their study to the HBS’ Women’s Alumni Board and plan to make presentations before several Harvard alumni clubs. And they expect to form a coalition with other peer schools to raise awareness of the gap on other campuses. “We don’t want the conversation to go away,” says second-year student Monica Belsito, “so we’re making sure this doesn’t end with us.”
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