Harvard Business School: Legislating Gender Equity?

September 13, 2013 /LinkedIn/ – The recent New York Times front-page profile of Harvard Business School’s attempts to root out gender inequities was, to say the least, controversial. As the Times portrayed it, the school’s administrators took aim at a male-centered culture, replete with jet setters and lavish parties, in which many women struggled to balance academics with finding a mate “among cream-of-the-crop-type people.”

I was a student at HBS forty years ago, and I’m lucky enough to have both sons and daughters who are recent graduates. Let me first say that I thought the Times relied too heavily on some familiar stereotypes in its depiction of HBS students. Wealthy pleasure-seekers certainly make for good headlines, but, in the main, programs like HBS and Stanford’s business school, where I’ve taught management for two decades, attract an astonishing array of thoughtful, good-hearted and ambitious young women and men each year.

The Times article did, however, raise interesting questions about an achievement gap between men and women at HBS. The administration there took direct aim at this gap with a raft of new initiatives. Their strategies included installing classroom stenographers to ensure women get credit for speaking, coaching female students on how to raise their hands more assertively, and prohibiting potentially revealing Halloween costumes at school.

I applaud Harvard’s goal of promoting a more balanced culture, where all voices are respected and heard. But there may be more effective ways to do this. Here’s what I believe we should keep in mind when looking to foster cultures of diverse excellence at business schools and elsewhere:

1. First of all, women have made great progress at top MBA programs. It may not be obvious to younger generations, but since I entered business school in 1971, there’s been a tremendous increase in the number of female MBA students at the top programs. The change from my era’s 5-10% female to today’s 35-40% ratio has been a great boon for MBA programs’ relevance, energy and diversity. Needless to say, the more female leaders we have, the better businesses get at representing the interests of half the world’s consumers. Aside from the clear social value of that balance, it’s just good business. And I’m convinced that trend will continue.

2. Men and women are equal, not identical. The world’s best sopranos are female and its best tenors are male – and opera’s most memorable duets feature both at once. In business, too, different voices are vital. As I’ve written before, a diverse chorus of opinions yields far more creative answers to the most challenging questions. Which is why the best leaders – male and female – not only celebrate gender differences, they marshal them. To build a culture of excellence, leaders must find ways to enable every individual member to excel. One-size-fits-all approaches won’t do that.

3. You can’t legislate culture. Whether you’re running an MBA program, a company or a family, culture works the same way: organizations thrive when people understand and embrace the signals they’re getting from leaders, and when they feel trusted and invested in.

Organizations don’t do so well, though, when people feel that norms are being pushed down their throats. Though “social engineering” may be too harsh a term for HBS’s culture-adjusting experiments, it does seem that the student backlash came from a sense that the policies seemed less like intuitive, people-centered new ideas, and more like regulations. Monitoring and rule-making don’t tend to inspire a lot of creativity and positive growth – and indeed, can end up simply reminding everyone of the problem they’re meant to address.

4. Besides, the best way to get respect is to earn it. As the father of five amazing daughters, I’ll forever defend them, sacrifice for them, and celebrate them. But I’ve always told them — and my sons — that they should earn people’s respect, not expect it. Anyone who can’t see a person’s talents because she has a second X-chromosome isn’t someone they want to be around anyway. Great leaders know you don’t identify great people by their gender – or their ethnicity, affluence, or alma mater. Instead, great people often have a different trait in common – they command respect.

5. A point of comparison out West: Stanford. The administration at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business hasn’t adopted the same kinds of measures that HBS has put in place – and I hope they never do.

When it comes to gender equality issues at the GSB, I would tend to give current students’ opinions more weight than my own: I’m a 66-year-old white guy who doesn’t go to campus parties or on student excursions very often.

Still, limited as it may be, the vantage point from which I view the GSB is a marvelous one. I teach management and leadership classes to hundreds of incredibly bright and self-possessed young people each year, future leaders from the U.S. and around the world. I don’t need special instruction on grading, or stenographers to remind me who said what: in my classes, women students drive the conversation as often as men; they supply pivotal insights and challenge key assumptions, both mine and those of other students. That’s what leaders do, and I’m glad I get to be a part of it.

Distinguished guests – proven leaders from all walks of life – regularly visit to share their experiences with the class and listen to the discussions, and are nearly always impressed with the level of student insight. In recognizing the excellence of these students, they don’t tend to make a distinction between male and female students. Why should they?

By Joel Peterson