Gender Issues at Harvard Business School – Now what?
When my friend Isabel got pregnant, she was removed from her job in a leadership role and unofficially demoted “because now she would no longer be so available”. Did anyone ask her if that was the case? No: the upper management just simply assumed that Isabel would start to miss out on her commitments. On the other hand her colleague Luis, a father of a new born, was seen as more stable and responsible. Gender issues in their purest form.
Ten days ago, The New York Times published a polemic article about women and gender issues in Harvard Business School. The article (read here) described the school as an engineered social experiment where women can thrive, but because it is artificially prepared for them to do so. An extensive description of many facts, together with many interpretations, presented a distorted version of the school where it seems that women have trouble to raise their hand, that women are hired as professors even if they are not totally prepared for it, or that gender inequality is a current issue gradually being corrected in the school.
As expected, The New York Times article generated many passionate reactions in the HBS community, starting from an intense letter from Professor Youngme Moon to the students where she defended the school values and culture, encouraging a calm perspective when reading the article. Numerous debates followed on whether gender problems are a reality in Harvard Business School or not. So far, the debates have not been totally fruitful: very engaged and smart women show their concerns about it, and very brave men dare to show their opinion about it, but actions are yet to come. (Honestly, we have been unsuccessful in not making men feel uncomfortable, awkward or left aside).
Moreover, conversations which have been generated so far have an aura of protection of school: “No, this is not true. Harvard is a best place ever”. Anusha Deshpande, a female HBS MBA student like me, cleverly points out the risk and the real issue behind this behavior (see here). Over-protection of school leads to lack of self-criticism and it fails to recognize the key efforts made by the school to improve.
However, my biggest concern is not that one. It may or may not be true that Harvard still has issues to correct, but it is clear to see that we are walking in the right direction and that giant steps are taken on a day by day basis towards addressing gender issues in HBS. My fear is that maybe we are forgetting to compare ourselves with Isabel. What will happen on the day in which we get out of this fantastic environment of HBS (even if not perfect), and face situations or decisions where the gender bias is as painful as the one that Isabel suffered? How can we use the New York Times article not to generate debate about the school, but to prepare ourselves for the future that comes after? What are we, as HBS students, going to do to change the world so that women can get to the top?
As I write these lines I realize that there is something even more important that we are barely starting to speak about: How can we engage our male classmates so that we are together in this journey? The outside world should not be a “you against me” place. It should be a place where we work to remove all preconceived ideas and barriers for women, and where we actively search equality together. How do we start that process from the HBS classes? This is the world challenge we face: now what?