Sep 10, 2013

    Harvard's gender-makeover project

    WHEN members of the Harvard Business School class of 2013 gathered in May to celebrate the end of their studies, there was little visible evidence of the experiment they had undergone for the last two years. As they prepared to graduate, the 905 students were united into one genderless mass.

    They had been unwitting guinea pigs in what would have once sounded like a far-fetched feminist fantasy: What if Harvard Business School gave itself a gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success?

    The country's premier business training ground was trying to solve a seemingly intractable problem. Year after year, women who had the same test scores and grades as men fell behind. Attracting and retaining female professors was a losing battle. Administrators found that one factor was torpedoing female class-participation grades: Women often felt they had to choose between academic and social success.

    But in 2010, Professor Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard's first female president, appointed a new dean - Professor Nitin Nohria - who pledged to do more to remake gender relations there. He and his team tried to change how students spoke, studied and socialised.

    They installed stenographers in classrooms to guard against biased grading, provided secret coaching for untenured female professors, and even replaced the hallowed case-study method, in which professors cold-called students about a business' predicament, with a course called Field, which grouped students into problem-solving teams.

    The dean's ambitions extended far beyond campus. Turning around its record on women could have an untold impact at other business schools, companies populated by Harvard alumni and in the Fortune 500, where only 21 chief executives are women.

    The institution would become a laboratory for studying how women speak in group settings, the links between relationships and professional status, and the use of everyday measurement tools to reduce bias.

    By graduation, the school had become a markedly better place for female students, according to interviews with more than 70 professors, administrators and students, who cited more women participating in class, record numbers of women winning academic awards and a much-improved school environment.