THE BLOG
09/17/2013 03:58 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

Why Sexism Ruled at the Harvard B School

Harvard Business School is a textbook case for what we call the New Soft War on Women.

Harvard president Drew Faust was so concerned two years ago about the sexism at the prestigious school, (after hearing many complaints from students and faculty) that she and other deans decided the prestigious school needed an intervention.

In a recent front page article in the New York Times, Jodi Kantor wrote:

"The country's premier business training ground was trying to solve a seemingly intractable problem. Year after year, women who had arrived with the same test scores and grades as men fell behind. Attracting and retaining female professors was a losing battle; from 2006 to 2007, a third of the female junior faculty left."

Female students (and female faculty) too often got the message that they don't belong at the school. "As a female faculty member, you are in an incredibly hostile teaching environment, and they do nothing to protect you," one woman (who left without tenure) told Kantor.

The founder of a venture capital firm who spoke at the school was asked to give advice to a female student who wanted to go into his field. As Kantor tells it, he laughed and said, "'Don't'... Male partners did not want them there, he continued, and he was doing them a favor by warning them."

Sexism is not just a problem at Harvard, but in many bastions where elite men have ruled for years. Laureen Rikleen, author of Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women's Success in the Law, writes "For female lawyers, the silence imperative can start in law school." For example, she described a study of female students at the University of Pennsylvania Law School which found that:

... the competitive, hierarchical culture at such prestigious schools encouraged peers to put down female students. Many women who complained that their voices are pushed down, suffocated early on by hostile first year classmates, described how those women who did speak out felt humiliated by male -- and sometimes female -- contemporaries.

When women get the message that they are not valued, it puts a burden on them that males just don't experience. Knowing they are going to be closely scrutinized and harshly judged if they are found wanting, women are often reluctant to speak out or take risks.

In fact, women do talk less at work, whether alone or in groups. When men and women work together to solve a problem, women speak only 75 percent as much as men do, according to researchers at Brigham Young University.

It's tempting to say that that the solution to this problem is easy. Just get women to speak up more. Unfortunately, if they do, women often pay a price.

In a 2012 study, Yale researcher Victoria Brescoll found that the rules of the power game differ for men and women. Using actual speech data from the U. S. Senate, she discovered a significant relationship between power and volubility (i.e. e., the total time senators spoke on the Senate floor). This finding was not surprising, Brescoll noted, because "the more an individual verbally participates, the more likely that individual will be seen as having power."

However, there was a twist: Male senators showed a significant relationship between power and volubility, but female senators did not. Brescoll also found that "a female CEO who talked disproportionately longer than others in an organizational setting was rated as significantly less competent and less suitable for leadership than a male CEO who talked for an equivalent amount of time." Moreover, both men and women had the same reactions to talkative women.

In short, when men talk, people see them as powerful. When women talk, people see them as incompetent and unsuited for leading. It's the classic Catch-22.

To add insult to injury, women who speak up and display their skills and their smarts cam actually harm their careers. Research finds that women who are viewed as competent are also viewed as unlikable. NYU psychologist Madeline Heilman has found that forceful women are characterized as conniving or untrustworthy -- what she calls "your typical constellation of 'bitchy' characteristics.'" She says that often, such women are seen as "not just unlikable, but downright awful."

Laurie A. Rudman, a psychologist at Rutgers University, has called this issue a "double-edged sword for women." Competent women often get high marks for their ability. But less able men who are seen as likable are more apt to be hired or promoted

In the higher reaches of American business, this problem is rampant. The CEO of the think tank Catalyst, Ilene H. Lang, describes typical "macho" behavior: "... people who swagger, people who will do the deal at any cost, people who will work day and night, hour and hour, for lots and lots of money and they don't care about anything else." And she says, women who behave in these macho ways are perceived as being very masculine and highly unattractive. "While men are aggressive, women are labeled with the 'B word.' It is behavior that's admired in men but despised in women."

At Harvard, the climate put undue pressure on women to look a certain way and to downplay their academic skills.

"After years of observation," Kantor writes, "administrators and professors agreed that one particular factor was torpedoing female class participation grades: women, especially single women, often felt they had to choose between academic and social success." In other words, be "hot" or be spurned by men.

It's not only at Harvard that the pressure to be almost absurdly attractive and sexy is having a dampening effect on women's progress.

In 2011, Princeton's then-President Shirley Tilghman and others began to notice that female students were not seeking the top campus leadership jobs -- the kind that lead to coveted internships and enhanced of job prospects after graduation. The numbers of women in these in these career building campus jobs rose steadily from 1970 to 2000, then nosedived by nearly half in the 2000s, from 31.4 to 17.1 percent.

A commission was set up at the university to examine the problem. It found, said Tilghman, that female students felt they must fit a "narrower range of expectations" than men. "They felt they were supposed to 'dress more carefully' and not to appear 'too aggressive,' she said, 'while at the same time achieving something close to perfection.'"

One graduate told the commission, "Women are expected to do everything, do it well, and look hot while doing it."

Julie Zeilinger, a 19-year-old undergraduate at Barnard College, Columbia University, wrote on a Forbes.com blog that she and her peers

may not face the type of Mad Men-esque sexism that once prohibited women from leading. But the reasons we fail to lead are still sexist in nature: they're just far subtler than they once were. The truth is many young women today fail to lead because of the pressure put on young women to be perfect.

Her peers, Zeilinger said, were acutely aware of the coverage of both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. "Not only were these women abused and constantly criticized for attempting to lead, they were again reduced to the way they looked, for how they achieved or failed to achieve a ridiculous standard of perfection and ultimately femininity."

Kantor writes that at the B school, "A current teacher said she was so afraid of a 'wardrobe malfunction' that she wore only custom suits in class, her tops invisibly secured to her skin with double-sided tape."

At Harvard, the two-year-long intervention tried to change the atmospherics at the school. There were sensitivity sessions, coaching for untenured female faculty members, and the school stationed stenographers in the classroom to reduce biased grading. The traditional case study method was revamped.

While some students resented these efforts, by some measures the intervention was quite successful. For example, in the past no more than 20 percent of women won the prestigious Baker Scholar honor. But this year, almost 40 percent of the Baker scholars were women. It was an unexpected rise that was hard to explain. Had professors jettisoned unconscious biases? Were the women doing better because the environment was less hostile? Or, did the faculty give women better grades because they knew the administration wanted them to do so?

The change was likely a combination of all these factors.

Whatever the reason, The B School experiment did change the arithmetic of women's success, and that's good news. Research tells us that women's success is critical for the overall health of the U.S. economy.

Evidence is coming from around the globe that when the gender gap in management closes,
productivity increases. For example, an Australian investment banking study found "an increase of up to 12 percent in productivity of Australian businesses could be achieved if the gender gap were eliminated." And, U.S. companies with significant numbers of women in management have a much higher return on investment than companies that lag on this front. In addition, productivity goes up when work teams have an equal number of women and men.

But change is far too slow. For the first time, women make up half of the educated labor force and earn the majority of advanced degrees. But these dramatic gains have not translated into money and influence. Women are not getting to the top at anything like the rate one would have expected, given their education and early promise. Despite the fact that the pipeline is getting filled with educated and talented women, their way forward is too often blocked.

Discrimination against women has not vanished. It has simply gone underground, and assumed more complex shapes and forms as the Harvard Business School saga illustrates.

The battle is far from over.

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are the authors of The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men-and Our Economy (Tarcher/ Penguin, to be published next month).