Hand-Raising At Harvard -- Will It Help Level the Field?

How does a top business graduate school level the playing field for women? How does it retain female faculty in a culture that the university admits has been unwelcoming to women? If it's Harvard Business School, it begins to change the culture -- a gut-wrenching effort for some of the graduate students who make a large investment in tuition.

On the schedule for change is overt sexual harassment, reports the New York Times' Jody Kantor in Sunday's front page, above-the-fold article. So, too, are a gender gap in grades and awards among students, and poor retention of female faculty.

"Year after year, women who had arrived with the same test scores and grades as men fell behind," Kantor writes. "Attracting and retaining female professors was a losing battle; from 2006 to 2007 a third of the female junior faculty left."

Harvard MBA candidates were learning to raise their hands this year because class participation counts for 50 percent of each final mark. It sounds ludicrous -- how could accomplished, intelligent women enter Harvard Business School not having learned how to raise their hands in class?

One answer: Women often consider their answers for a longer time -- not because they think less quickly than men, but because they take time to more deeply examine alternatives and present them in socially conscious ways. You could say, as some researchers have, that society has given women that option, although there can be a cost, especially in business. Considering alternatives can initially appear as indecisiveness. And, supposedly, great leaders aren't indecisive -- ever!

It may well be that that women aren't at all too slow at raising their hands, but that Harvard men are trying to answer too quickly. Which, by the way, would be cultural too. Personally, I'll take a good answer over a quick one anytime. But I understand what they're trying to achieve by encouraging women to speak up.

With regard to dealing with disparagement of women (and according to the NYT there appears to be plenty of that being dished out) Harvard's plan has its benefits. The word seems to be out that HBS isn't a great place for young female faculty: Performance ratings have been low, and even attracting them to Harvard is difficult. Under the new plan, they are being observed and recorded during classes and given advice for improvement. For some, it is working.

My hat is off to Harvard for its efforts to foster an educational environment that levels the playing field for women -- for recognizing that lower grades among women equally competent as the men was indicative of problems -- that male students' hazing of female students and openly ruminating about who they would "kill, sleep with or marry" is bad stuff. You just have to wonder, though, how it got so bad at one of the premier leadership training grounds -- why it took so long to start turning it around and how much that has to do with women remaining -- after decades of disparity -- underrepresented at the top of U.S. businesses.

Kathleen also blogs here and her new mystery-thriller is Shadow Campus.