When B-School Culture Goes Awry

Professor Robin Ely is Harvard’s first dean for “culture and community”

In many cases, faculty and deans aren’t all that aware of the behavior because it occurs outside of the classroom. But there is an expectation that some bad behavior is inevitable. “These are MBAs,” says Amir Ziv, vice dean at Columbia Business School. “They are in their late 20s. There is a lot of youth and there is alcohol at parties.”

Some MBA students say the partying and the jokes are light-hearted fun and that there is a generational gap that leads to misunderstandings by older faculty, particularly over the playing of the “Kill, Fuck and Marry” game. “My sense is that the game is played with some frequency, and that many students were surprised that it was cited as part of the ‘problem’ that might exist within the culture here,” explained one Harvard MBA student who asked to remain anonymous. “The game is played very casually by some, and to many it seems unreasonable to draw a line between that game being played and an incident of sexual assault.”

When It’s No Longer Fun & Games

On April 26, Harvard Business School called “mandatory lunches” with all 10 of its 90-person sections of first-year MBA sections to discuss the accusations of sexual harassment on campus. The meetings, led by both faculty and students, were scheduled at the request of student leaders after the administration began a dialogue with them.

Faculty members at several other prominent schools say the behavior is fairly prevalent. “It happens everywhere, in business schools and in the organizations MBA students come from,” says Mandy O’Neill, a professor who studies gender issues at George Mason University’s business school. “Some of the joking isn’t all that different than what goes on in the workplace. It’s the same kind of behavior. They just import it.

“Sometimes, it’s not the games they play,” adds O’Neill, who has also taught at Stanford University and the Wharton School. “It’s what they say.” It can be common, for example, for male MBA students to say they would never marry anyone in their class because aspiring career women are aggressive, assertive, and dominant. “The reason it is a problem is because it conflicts with the expectation of women as warm and submissive,” says O’Neill. “A lot of successful women will say the same thing: ‘I don’t want anyone who is that driven. I want someone who will cook and stay home and take care of the children.’ But it’s the way people talk about their classmates that I find most disturbing. Their language is, ‘She’s a bossy bitch.’”

O’Neill, however, sees graduate business education as an opportunity to more positively influence such attitudes and the behaviors they cultivate. “A business school education should be an intervention on how you can be a better and more inclusive manager and change agent. So when students go back into their industries, they have the opportunity to engage differently with their colleagues.”

At Harvard, that may well be one of the reasons Dean Nitin Nohria created the new associate dean position for culture and community soon after taking office a year-and-a-half ago and named Ely, a professor who specializes in gender issues, to the post.

“We know that there are cultural issues outside the institution, but we think that there are things we can do to address and mitigate them,” says Harvard’s Ely. “It doesn’t mean we don’t bear responsibility for addressing it. They are going to encounter these same issues when they leave. Part of our responsibility is to help them deal with these issues constructively.”

Addressing Gender Issues Inside The Classroom

As part of that initiative, Ely has authored a 40-page report on Harvard’s culture, examining 10 years of data on students and academic performance. In late March and early April, groups of faculty have come together to discuss the findings of what is still a confidential report.

“One of the main reasons for doing this is that our faculty had an uneven understanding of what our students experience,” says Ely. “So people found different things interesting and surprising. One result has to do with the gender grade gap, and that is something that has been on our minds for a while.”

A couple of years ago, a Harvard study found that proportionally more men than women receive academic honors at HBS and that had 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.

“We analyzed the data and found that the grade gap has actually gone,” notes Ely. “The first year of the current class of 2012, there was no significant difference in grades between men and women. And then we looked at the first term for the class of 2013, and there were no significant differences.”

Ely says that the recent revelations at Harvard won’t change the nature of her job. “In some ways, it helps to illustrate the current nature of the problem,” she says. “It gives people a sense of urgency — if they didn’t have it before. We have made progress in some ways as evidenced by the disappearance of the grade gap. But this is a complex issue, and it’s not going to go away overnight.”


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