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.