A Case For Women

Robin J. ElyPhotograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

When Nitin Nohria became Harvard Business School (HBS) dean in mid 2010, he detailed five priorities, ranging from innovation in education and internationalization to inclusion. In setting out the latter goal, he said in a recent conversation, he aimed not at numerical diversity, but at a broader objective: that every HBS student and teacher be enabled to thrive within the community.

A decanal missive in early 2011 further defined the work required to make HBS genuinely inclusive. “I have launched an initiative that will focus…on the challenges facing women at the school,” Nohria wrote. He created an institutional home for the work—a senior associate deanship for culture and community—and appointed Wilson professor of business administration Robin J. Ely to the post: a logical choice, given her research on race and gender relations in organizations. (Making progress, he noted, has entailed work by other faculty colleagues, too, including Youngme Moon, then in her capacity as senior associate dean for the M.B.A. program, and Frances Frei, senior associate dean for faculty planning and recruitment. Frei, he said, has played a vital role in helping women faculty members—sometimes “given a shorter runway” in adjusting to their new responsibilities—succeed at the school.)

Ely’s role, he explained in the interview, was initially intended to help HBS look at itself and evolve practices that might make it a role model for other institutions. The school’s W50 summit in 2013, which examined the first half-century of women enrolled in the M.B.A. program, provided an opportunity, he noted, to “come to terms with our own history”—not all of it welcoming or inclusive (see “The Girls of HBS,” July-August 2013, and the linked report on W50).

A complementary strand would involve HBS’s academic life: “Who gets represented?” in the teaching cases professors develop, as Nohria put it. In his annual letter to faculty colleagues this past January, he wrote, “I know that of the dozens of cases I have written, fewer than 10 percent have had a woman in a leadership position.” Moreover “[T]he most effective cases are not necessarily those where women protagonists are dealing with gendered issues like work-life balance, but rather leading change and other strategic initiatives within an organization.” Just as M.B.A. cases have become increasingly global in the past decade, he aims for at least 20 percent to “feature a female” leader within the next three years. (And because HBS sells cases to schools worldwide, that shift will radiate far beyond Allston.)

Writing such cases is part and parcel of HBS professors’ research, and in a natural development, Ely’s initial role has evolved toward the externally focused perspectives Nohria described. HBS’s new Gender Initiative, under her leadership, is a research forum for faculty members who examine gender issues in businesses and other organizations.


Ely recently recalled the concerns that prompted Nohria’s initial interest, including persistent underrepresentation of women among M.B.A. students earning highest academic honors. To address such issues, she said, she wanted to look at the school’s culture broadly, to determine whether possible group differences in how students, faculty, and staff members experienced the culture affected their ability to succeed. (She noted that Cahners-Rabb professor of business administration Kathleen L. McGinn’s prior work with students had explored how HBS’s cultural dynamics might have contributed to a gender gap in grades—helping to pave the way and set the agenda for the culture initiative.)

HBS academic honors, for instance, are based strictly on grades, which are heavily influenced by classroom participation. Exploring the culture, Ely said, made issues such as students’ willingness to express their views, professors’ patterns of calling on them, and the operation of student study groups “discussable”—the precursor to change. (In fact, achievement and satisfaction gaps have narrowed.) Airing these matters has also shaped student conversations about social dynamics and extracurriculars.

Given these fruitful discussions, raising HBS’s scrutiny of gender upward and outward was a natural next step. Nohria’s January letter asked: “Can we conduct work that will accelerate the advancement of women leaders who will make a difference in the world and promote gender and other types of equity in business and society?” The Gender Initiative, with Ely as faculty leader and Colleen C. Ammerman as assistant director, now serves as a locus for research among professors in units across HBS.

It is anchored by a core group including Ely herself; McGinn (now exploring the impact on school performance, age of marriage, and other outcomes of teaching African girls negotiating skills); Chapman professor of business administration Boris Groysberg (author of Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance, which uncovered a significant gap in financial analysts’ ability to maintain their “star” status when they move to new firms—unexpectedly, in women’s favor); associate professor of business administration Amy J.C. Cuddy (who is looking at gender stereotypes across cultures); assistant professor of business administration Lakshmi Ramarajan (who examines how individuals’ cultural and personal identities affect their engagement and performance in organizations); and others.

Since its unveiling in May, the initiative has already publicized several findings:

  • HBS graduates are an elite cohort of above-average means. A survey of women and men who earned M.B.A. degrees reveals that they value careers and professional success equally. But as Ely, sociologist Pamela Stone of City University of New York, and Ammerman reported, although “about 50 percent to 60 percent of men across the three generations [said] they were ‘extremely satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with their experiences of meaningful work, professional accomplishments, opportunities for career growth, and compatibility of work and personal life, only 40 percent to 50 percent of women were similarly satisfied on the same dimensions.”
  • A survey of 24 developed nations, led by McGinn, revealed that—far from being harmed—women whose mothers worked outside the home are themselves more likely to work, assume greater professional responsibilities, and achieve higher earnings than women whose mothers were at home full time.
  • And although women’s under-representation in the most senior ranks of business leadership is often attributed to the lack of “family-friendly” workplace policies, an in-depth analysis of a consulting firm, co-conducted by Ely, pointed to a more intractable problem: a culture of being at work or on call around the clock—the new norm in lucrative professions like law, finance, and consulting, and one that firms are loath to restrain. Both men and women suffer in these cultures, but women are more likely to avail themselves of part-time options or otherwise adapt to care for family members, derailing their careers.

Interest in gender-related questions, Ely said, also “bubbles up from the faculty” at large. Thus, for instance, a faculty member who focuses on entrepreneurship is determining the antecedents to women’s interest in pursuing entrepreneurial ventures.

In addition to encouraging and publicizing research, the initiative convenes an annual conference to focus scholarship and learning from practice, engaging participants from within HBS and beyond. Like the school’s other interdisciplinary initiatives, Ammerman said, this one provides a locus for faculty members to test ideas with colleagues, learn about pertinent research, and address new questions to data already collected for other purposes: a place to go when those queries “bubble up.” As Nohria hoped, the fledgling venture is becoming an intellectual home for women and men from the HBS faculty who want to understand how gender affects organizations’ operations—and individuals’ trajectories.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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