What can NGOs learn from Harvard’s gender equity experiment?

UntitledHarvard’s venerated and brotastic MBA program quietly decided to become more female friendly to both students and faculty. Men tended to dominate the top 5% of graduating classes and are over-represented in the faculty. The class that graduated this past summer were part of an experiment to change the tide and enable more success for women.

The program worked in making things better for women, found a survey of female administrators, faculty and students. However it also pissed some people off. Others questioned whether the intentional changes would actually translate to real-world changes for the men and women when they left their Cambridge riverside digs.

The New York Times recently reported on the mixed results:

But in 2010, Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first female president, appointed a new dean who pledged to do far more than his predecessors to remake gender relations at the business school. He and his team tried to change how students spoke, studied and socialized. The administrators installed stenographers in the classroom to guard against biased grading, provided private coaching — for some, after every class — for untenured female professors, and even departed from the hallowed case-study method.

The dean’s ambitions extended far beyond campus, to what Dr. Faust called in an interview an “obligation to articulate values.” The school saw itself as the standard-bearer for American business. Turning around its record on women, the new administrators assured themselves, could have an untold impact at other business schools, at 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 romantic relationships and professional status, and the use of everyday measurement tools to reduce bias.

Might there be a lesson or two for international women’s empowerment programs? What actually caused the change in Harvard was difficult to determine and the mixed feelings from the people involved indicates some challenges that have to be considered when trying to achieve gender equity.

Gender equity is an important aim, but getting there is messy. It might be that Harvard could learn from the NGOs that have been working on this for decades. It also might just show that there are no easy answers.

Share.

About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.