Harvard Business School Dean Apologizes for Sexism on Campus

What Women Really Think
Jan. 29 2014 6:25 PM

Harvard Business School Dean Apologizes for Sexism on Campus

56900980-harvard-university-students-walk-through-the-campus-on
Harvard University

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On Monday, Nitin Nohria, the dean of Harvard Business School, took the opportunity to do something bold. Speaking to an audience of 600 alumni and guests at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in San Francisco, he apologized. Women at Harvard, he said, could feel “disrespected, left out, and unloved by the school.” “I’m sorry on behalf of the business school,” he continued. “The school owed you better, and I promise it will be better.”

What was HBS’s sin? Offensive treatment of female students and professors; a corrosive sexism devaluing women as business leaders ever since they were first admitted in 1963.

Advertisement

And what does “better” look like? Nohria announced plans to increase the number of female protagonists in Harvard case studies from 9 percent to 20 percent during the next five years. Because Harvard case studies are a gold standard in business school courses around the world, this promise to represent more financial problem-solvers as female “would have a big impact on the way leadership is taught,” according to John Byrne at CNN Money. Nohria also said he would “work relentlessly” to make “the entire school … more open and encouraging to women.” 

Frankly, I hope that any school charging $50,000 a year in tuition would be open and encouraging to everyone it admits. This whole mea culpa smacks of gesture and performance: Nohria’s one concrete vow, to teach woman-centered case studies one-fifth of the time, feels underwhelming in a world where we make up half of the population. But maybe I’m expecting too much? Open contrition is a new look for HBS, groomer of trading-floor kings and boardroom honchos. When a willingness to admit fault, to question tradition, comes from entitlement-and-privilege land, perhaps that’s reason enough to celebrate.

Nohria’s appointment is part of the school’s ongoing effort to move away from a culture straight out of The Wolf of Wall Street. As Jodi Kantor wrote in a much-discussed New York Times piece last September, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust hired him in part to repair gender relations at HBS. That NYT story burned a hole in the school’s reputation with its scenes of sexism (such as the hazing of female students and professors, grading bias, and an obsession with women’s looks and wealth). But it also described how school officials were responding to the mess: note-takers in classrooms to track who spoke when, sexual violence workshops, class participation training, and courses structured around woman-friendly “problem solving teams” rather than lectures.

And the measures appear to be working. In 2013, Nohria told his audience, a record 41 percent of first-year HBS students were women, up from 25 percent two decades ago. The gender grade gap has closed since the reforms took effect in 2011, and last year women made up almost two-fifths of the highest-ranking scholars in the graduating class. In her New York Times story, Kantor quoted a female professor who worried that socially engineered gender equality at Harvard might fail to prepare female students for the real, bloody business of business. “Are we trying to change the world 900 students at a time?” the professor asked. Judging from Nohria’s extraordinary mea culpa on behalf of the school, maybe they are.   

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 9:22 AM The Most Populist Campaign of 2014
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-era New York
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 9:13 AM Clive James, Terminally Ill, Has Written an Exquisitely Resigned Farewell Poem
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 7:36 AM The Inspiration Drought Why our science fiction needs new dreams.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.