Harvard Business School and Women

The New York Times has a long article on  Harvard Business School's effort to change its culture around women.  Given that both my wife and I attended, albeit 25 years ago, I have a few thoughts.

  • I thought the article was remarkably fair given that it came from the NYT.  Men who are skeptical of the program actually are allowed to voice intelligent objections, rather than just be painted as Neanderthals
  • I would have abhorred the forced gender indoctrination program, as much for being boring as for being tangential.  I am fortunate I grew up when I did, before such college group-think sessions were made a part of the process everywhere.  I would presume most of these young folks are now used to such sessions from their undergrad days.   I would not have a problem having an honest and nuanced discussion about these issues with smart people of different backgrounds, but I thought the young man they quoted in the article said it really well -- there is just no payoff to voicing a dissenting opinion in such sessions where it is clear there is a single right answer and huge social and even administrative penalties for saying the wrong thing.
  • I went to HBS specifically because I loved the confrontational free-for-all of the classes.   It was tailor-made to my personality and frankly I have never been as successful at anything before or since as I was at HBS.   I say this only to make it clear that I have a bias in favor of the HBS teaching process.   I do think there is an issue that this process does not fit well with certain groups.  These folks who do not thrive in the process are not all women (foreign students can really struggle as well) but they are probably disproportionately women.  So I was happy to see that rather than dumb down the process, they are working to help women be more successful and confident in it.
  • It is interesting to see that the school still struggles to get good women professors.  When I was there, the gap between the quality of men and women professors was staggering.  The men were often older guys who had been successful in the business and finance world and now were teaching.  The women were often young and just out of grad school.  The couple of women professors I had my first year were weak, probably the two weakest professors I had.  In one extreme case our female professor got so jumbled up in the numbers that the class demanded I go down and sort it out, which I finally did.  I thought it was fun at the time, but now I realize how humiliating it was.
  • To some extent, the school described in the article seems a different place than when I was there.  They describe a school awash in alcohol and dominated by social concerns.  This may be a false impression -- newspapers have a history of exaggerating college bacchanalia.   At the time I was there, Harvard did not admit many students who did not have at least 2 years of work experience, such that the youngest students were 24 and many were in their 30's and 40's.  A number were married and some even had children.   To be there, they not only were paying a lot of money but they were quitting paying jobs.  The school was full of professionals who were there for a purpose.  I had heard that HBS had started to admit more students right out of college -- perhaps that is a mistake.
  • The fear by the women running the school that women would show up on Halloween wearing "sexy pirate" costumes represents, in my mind, one of the more insidious aspects of this new feminist paternalism (maternalism?) aimed at fellow women.  Feminism used to be about empowering women to make whatever choices they want for their lives.   Now it is increasingly about requiring women to make only the feminist-approved choices.
  • I actually wrote a novel where the protagonist was a confident successful female at HBS.   So I guess I was years ahead of the curve.

Postscript:  Below the fold is an excerpt from my novel.  In it, the protagonist Susan describes how an HBS class works and shares my advice for being successful at HBS.

From the novel BMOC.  The protagonist Susan is sitting in class at the Harvard Business School, watching a fellow student named Julian "open" a case:

Julian has been “cold called”, or picked at random with no advanced notice to “open” the case, starting the class with a 10 minute (oops, now 15 minute…. Aaargh going on 20 minute) recitation of the issues in the case and his proposed solution.  In the battle for the hearts and minds and attention of students, this bit of academic Russian roulette – choosing a random student to open the case – was the professor’s ultimate doomsday weapon.

To understand why this threat was necessary, one must understand that every class at HBS required a case to be read and analyzed in advance.  This meant that every day of every week, each student must have read and be prepared to thoughtfully discuss three cases. And, unfortunately, by “cases” we are not talking about the “Case of the Purloined Letter” or anything half so interesting or one-tenth as well written.  These cases were long, turgid, convoluted regurgitations of business situations that were probably not interesting to the people involved in the first place. And, most demoralizing, they kept coming. Relentlessly.  Much like the human wave attacks in the Korean War that Susan’s dad had told her about.

Harvard students, while nothing like their reputation, were arguably more dedicated to academics than their peers in Austin or Tempe.  And graduate business students, often with families and debts, could reasonably be assumed to be more dedicated still.

However, they were still students.  And any student, whether in Cambridge or Columbus, when faced with this unending wave of cases, will, in the language of microeconomics, eventually assign greater value to the marginal case of beer over the marginal case for class, and decide to blow off the reading.

It was for this predictable decision that the professors had to maintain their nuclear umbrella, the ultimate deterrent threat of a cold call, combined with a grading system that assigned most of the student’s grade based on class participation and required that professors find at least nine people to fail in every class. 

For most students, at least in the first year, this very clear threat of public humiliation and failure had approximately the same effect as the Soviet invasion of Hungary had on the rest of Eastern Europe:  everyone lived in fear.

When you went to high school, there were probably two or three people out of the hundreds in your graduating class that treated every life event as critical to their whole future.  You know the ones – they sweated every SAT, exam, tryout, election, and ballgame as a test which, if failed, “will ruin my chances for getting into Princeton, which will kill my chance to get into Stanford Business School, which will end my ability to be Chairman of General Electric.”

But there were only a few of such folks, and you kind of pitied them their fear and envied them their ambition.  Now, think of Harvard as a big sorting machine designed to collect these people from all over the country and put 89 of these rabid type-A neurotic worry-freaks together in one room.  Add to the mix an academic incentive system based on Russian roulette, and administered by professors who take a certain mad glee from drawing out the suspense each day and carefully picking the day’s victims, and the resulting fear and panic were palpable.

All of this was pretty funny now to Susan, since she had figured out how to game the system about ten days into the first semester.  

...

In her first two weeks at HBS, [Susan] had discovered the two rules for success that had so far catapulted her to the top of her class with a gratifyingly small amount of effort.  To herself, she called these rules the “squeaky wheel” rule and the “Jerry Springer” rule.

The squeaky wheel rule actually meant the opposite:  Unlike the squeaky wheel in the old saying, at HBS the silent wheel got the attention.  More specifically, you were much more likely to get cold called (i.e. get the loaded chamber in the Russian roulette game) if you had not contributed much in class.  So, in the first two weeks of every course, Susan raised her hand constantly and talked as much as possible.  She got the reputation with each professor early-on for being aggressive and hard-working.  Once this reputation was established, she could safely blow off any number of cases with little fear of getting cold-called unprepared.

Whereas the squeaky wheel rule helped her reduce her work load and stress, the Jerry Springer rule ensured her success.  While the professors may have thought of themselves as John Houseman presiding over law student discussions in a stately manner, she saw the class differently.  To her, the professors and what they did looked more like Oprah or Sally Jesse Raphael, succeeding or failing at their jobs based on how lively a discussion they could evoke.  And, as Jerry Springer has proven, the one who can be the most controversial gets the best ratings.

As a result, Susan watched the discussion each day from her elevated perch in the back row, swooping into the discussion on the side opposite to where the majority opinion was headed.  She strove to be as controversial and inflammatory as possible:  She heatedly defended outsourcing to India when bashing this practice appeared hip;  she advocated mass layoffs when worker team building was in vogue;  she defended executive pay and stock options when it was clear that big CEO compensation packages were not politically correct.  Sometimes she believed what she was saying, sometimes she did not, and often she couldn’t care less, but the professors always ate it up.  She made them and their classes look better, edgier, more interesting.  And they rewarded her for it with top grades in every course so far.

  • obloodyhell

    }}} In one extreme case our female professor got so jumbled up in the numbers that the class demanded I go down and sort it out, which I
    finally did. I thought it was fun at the time, but now I realize how humiliating it was.

    Well, the good thing about that was that, ashamed and humiliated, she vowed to work hard to increase her understanding of those processes so that never again would any student be more capable than her in essential class functions...

    That IS what happened?
    Right?
    Right?
    :-P

  • obloodyhell

    }}} Feminism used to be about empowering women to make whatever choices they
    want for their lives. Now it is increasingly about requiring women to
    make only the feminist-approved choices.

    No, Feminism was ALWAYS about requiring women to make feminist-approved choices. Women used to be just more in-line with what feminists want. Women have changed and become less mono-focused, while most feminists are even more assholes than they were in the 60s.

  • peterhsu

    Ended up here via McArdle. This is one of the best blog posts I've ever seen - both for the comments at the top ("I thought the article was remarkably fair given that it came from the NYT") and the fantastic excerpt from your book. The historical analogies are perfect and the story of MBA classroom dynamics rings true.

  • NL7

    Is B school grading not mostly blind? In law school, the first year classes are typically graded entirely by a single anonymous final exam, with professors reserving the right to include maybe five or ten percent based on 'class participation.' The anonymity was enforced by my school, with random testing ID numbers distributed by the administration for use in every class that semester. The classes that had final papers were not anonymous, but almost every class my grade was primarily or exclusively anonymous. People lived in fear of the cold call, but I doubt it changed more than a few grades that first year.