The XX Factor

It’s Still a Bummer to Be a Woman at Harvard Business School

Don’t rejoice yet, women of Harvard.

Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Jodi Kantor’s rich investigation into the gender dynamics of Harvard Business School is meant to leave you with the impression that men and women fare very differently at this elite training ground. In 2009, only 14 percent of women landed at the top of the class, compared to 36 percent of men. Women were less likely to speak up in class and even female professors, of whom there were few, felt intimidated and hassled by male students. Still, my takeaway from Kantor’s piece is that men and women at HBS have a lot more in common with one another than they do with everyone else in the world.

This is a place where students drive luxury cars and host decadent parties and speak of themselves in terms of their “social cap,” as if they were human derivatives. The median salary on graduation is $120,000 (and that’s before the signing bonus), and the differences in starting wages between men and women are minimal. The background to Kantor’s story is that HBS has set up a very particular definition of success—now we’re just trying to figure out whether women can or want to fit into it.

HBS exists at the intersection of academia and finance. In academia, women have made relatively easy and consistent gains over men for the past 40 years; now three women earn a college degree for every two men, and more women earn graduate degrees. But in finance women have made very little progress. So the HBS launched an experiment in gender equity, with the class of 2013 as the guinea pigs. In 2010, Drew Gilpin Faust, the university’s first female president, hired a dean who launched an ambitious initiative to change the business school culture by monitoring how students spoke, providing private coaching, and doing away with the case study model in favor of a more collaborative approach. By the end of the two years, the grade gap between men and women had vanished, and women were winning more academic awards. But the ultrawealthy frat boys of “Section X” still existed and no doubt still played “Fuck, Marry, Kill” and hassled the female professors. As one founder of a venture capital firm told a woman who asked him how women could get into the field: “Don’t.” The male partners don’t want women there, and this guy was doing them a favor by warning them. Gender equity experiments apparently can’t eradicate jerks.

Kantor wisely investigates the school’s social scene and how it plays into the gender inequities. Women worry that if they are too aggressive they won’t get a date, and that this is their last chance to snag a Harvard man. They dress up like Playboy bunnies at parties and play along with the sexual rating games, which alarm the professors in charge of eradicating gender gaps. For my book, The End of Men, I also followed the party scene at an elite business school, where partying was a school-sanctioned form of networking. And just as at Harvard, the women I followed made it their business to out-vulgar the men. Many of the women had been hardened on trading floors and investment banks where the male-to-female ratio could be 50 to 1. Telling a joke that could make the men blanche was a way of showing that you could outrun them in the negotiations seminar the next morning. It was alarming to watch future business leaders of America in 4-inch heels mimic a Thai prostitute, but also impressive. The act did in fact shut the men up.

In thinking about how to extend the experiment beyond campus, administrators told Kantor that they are considering only allowing firms that make an active effort to hire women to recruit on campus. That’s a fine way to send a message, but the actual problems are deeper. Finance is not notoriously terrible for hiring women but for making them pay a huge cost if they take time off; Claudia Goldin compares finance to other industries in her paper, “Career Cost of Family,” and shows that in finance people’s income drops dramatically if they take short spells off work, even if they go back full time. A better policy would be to only allow firms on campus that manage to hold onto women or have decent family leave policies.

And then the more difficult question: Women don’t seem to care as much about money. Surveys of corporate women repeatedly show that they are motivated by job satisfaction, meaning at work, daily happiness, balance, and power—but not just money. Amanda Upton, the woman in Kantor’s story most admired by her business school classmates for her finance wizardry and blitz study sessions, takes a relatively low-risk job after graduation, managing a wealthy family’s investments so she can be near her fiancé. “You can either be a frontier charger or have an easier, happier life,” she tells Kantor. Who can argue with that?