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The Important Role Business Schools Can Play In Framing Gender Equity

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Earlier this week, the NYT ran a provocative story on gender equity - among students and faculty - at the Harvard Business School (HBS). The article puts a microscope on some difficult experiences of female students and faculty and the school's efforts to give itself "a gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success."

The article is a welcome contribution about under-discussed--but widespread--dynamics in business schools. Data from a survey by the AACSB (b'school accrediting agency) indicates that only 19% of full professors are female. HBS is far from alone in worrying about the experience of women in what has become a highly sought-after degree--and not just for jobs in business. Roughly 25% of the post-graduate degrees in the US are MBAs. Almost as high a percentage of our nation's undergraduate degrees are in business. What happens in business education matters.

The article didn't lack for jaw-dropping statements, but in describing resistance to the school's efforts to intervene, one line stood out for me: "As faculty members pointed out, the more exquisitely gender-sensitive the school environment became, the less resemblance it bore to the real business world."

This seems to imply that business schools should fashion themselves as mirrors of what is happening in the business world. I believe this is a dangerously flawed perception. Business schools have a critical and fundamental responsibility to students, faculty, and yes, recruiters - but also to wider society - to create and maintain a culture that aligns with the capacities we seek in our next generation of business leaders.

Elite business schools are known for the powerful socialization that takes place inside the walls; indeed its one of the things that makes them attractive to those of us who sought a business degree. Common sense - and the Aspen Institute's own research on management education - supports this idea: yes, students learn frameworks and models - but, perhaps more importantly, they immerse themselves for two years in a 24/7 community that sets the tone and expectations for professional behavior.

INSEAD professor Gianpiero Petriglieri, who researches the role of business schools, observes: "[At business school], managers revisit their identities and aspirations. Strive to align what they can do with who they want to be. Refine their view of what it means to lead and whom they are meant to serve. Join communities that pressure, guide and support them long after classes break."

Nitin Nohria, Dean at HBS, holds an expansive view of the role that his future alumni need to play in society (which is one reason we asked--and he agreed--to serve on our Advisory Board at the Aspen Institute.) "None of the major problems confronting the globe today--sustainability, health care, poverty, financial-system repair--can be solved unless business plays a significant role" he wrote shortly after his appointment as Dean. And yet, business culture, writ large, appears unmoored from fundamental principles that would allow business to play such a role - principles like a long-term orientation, stewardship, and business statesmanship.

Do we really want our up and coming leaders to spend two years at institutions that mimic business culture? Wouldn't it be better if our schools of business were run in ways that supported our aspirations for our next generation of leaders? I applaud Dean Noria's efforts to reshape the culture at HBS. I hope his students come to view themselves not as "guinea pigs" as the NYT article suggested, but instead as participants and learners during a challenging change effort at a storied and influential institution - the type they'll perhaps one day have the opportunity to lead.