MBAs Won’t Fix Women, Women Will Transform MBAs

November 12, 2013 0 Comments

Originally published at Take The Lead 

Ever feel like everybody is trying to “fix” women? Constantly trying to make women into better versions of themselves or something else entirely?

I didn’t until a few older colleagues pointed this out to me. “Notice how it’s the women who always seem to be the problem. Even when the intention is good, it’s women who need to change something about themselves,” they’d say like wise grandmothers, trying to give me the wider, longer view… simultaneously warning me where not to put my time and energy. In their 60 something years they had all seen enough of this phenomenon play out to no longer want to buy in.

The last time I encountered this, albeit indirectly, I was reading Jodi Kantor’s Harvard Business School case study on gender equity in The New York Times.

Well-intentioned though it is, Kantor’s case study—like Harvard Business School it seems—focuses on the wrong problems while aiming to address gender equity. While HBS seems to be working hard to get women faculty to change their teaching styles and women students to raise their hands more in class or stop compromising themselves for a date, Kantor’s case study just tells too much of a story about how women currently rank when it comes to sex, money, and power (out in the world and at HBS). And not generative power (power to) as Gloria Feldt reminds us, but something more like the old power model (power over). Are these things really what business school is about? Should they be?

We hear about problematic party games (who would you marry, f***, kill?) and Halloween costumes (Playboy bunnies), one female student’s strategic romantic prospects, and another’s weight–subjects I’d expect to read about in a glossy women’s mag, not The New York Times that are also ultimately besides the point. In fairness, we hear about grades, class participation rates, and salaries after graduation, too, but we never hear a lot about real equity.

Equity is often used to mean equality, although the two words/ideas aren’t at all the same. The two ideas collapse into each other. But equity is about justice and fair treatment, not just balance, not necessarily numbers. It’s about how we treat people, how we treat each other. And whether it’s business school or journalism, when we focus on how women are the problem or something primarily to be managed and “fixed,” we just aren’t treating women well. Women are never going to have the same business school experience as men, but they should have an equitable one.

It’s not so much that women inside particular institutions need to change (or even that men need to change!), it’s that institutions and workplace/educational cultures need to change and we all have cultural work to do.

How do you change a culture? I’m not sure it’s by “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” as HBS set out to do when they aimed to make business school more hospitable for women. Not by asking women to raise their hands more or telling men they should really care about women’s issues. Not by focusing just on diversity either, where we ask how well women are performing in already existing cultures.

We change cultures by:

a) first making sure leadership is representative of the populations we aim to engage. Kantor’s right, Harvard has a long way to go on gender balance among faculty. Leadership parity is key.

b) working with any given community so that action for change starts with themnot the other way around. This relates to this idea of moving beyond “diversity” to structural change, which Rinku Sen speaks eloquently about here with regard to race (this same idea applies to gender). What about a student-led effort to support women’s leadership and participation within the school?

c) change the narrative of “problem-solving” women (or the issue of women) and start highlighting and working with strengths/solutions. Where are women making headway in the school? In which ways are women students doing well? Why not amplify these?

d) having a little humility so as to build trust. Yes, even if, perhaps especially if you’re Harvard Business School. Professor Frances Frei says HBS “[has] to lead the way” on turning around women’s track record on leadership and participation, “and then lead the rest of the world in doing it.” Given HBS’s performance so far on both fronts, its leadership would be wise instead to identify and follow other institutions who are simply, let’s face it, doing better at this whole gender balance thing.

It all comes back to purpose. Is HBS’s goal just to improve women’s “track record” within HBS, as it stands now? Or is it to improve women’s experience at HBS, increasing their knowledge and capabilities while honoring their unique skills and insights while they are there so they can go out and build better businesses and organizations in the world?

I guess it depends on what their customer wants.

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