THE BLOG

Sexism Alive and Well at Harvard Business School?

09/16/2013 02:51 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2013

Kudos to the Harvard Business School for being willing to shine the spotlight of the New York Times on the corrosive sexism that has persisted over the 50-year period women have been admitted. The article described a two-year program to explore why women (40 percent of the class) only achieved 14 percent of top honors in 2009.

It's no surprise that Harvard University's first female president, Drew Gilpin Faust, undertook this significant mission. In 2010 she appointed a new dean who shared her concern.

Kudos, too, to the New York Times for placing the three-column story on the front page, above the fold in the Sunday paper, then jumping to two full pages inside. The Times saw this as a major story, and so it is.

The race to the top of American industry starts at this esteemed so-called "B School." The Times calls it the "premier business training ground," raising the cream of the crop of captains of industry. Women have had to run that race with one foot tied behind their backs.

It's no wonder that only 14 percent of top Fortune 500 executives are women; or that the percentage of women on public company boards of directors has been stuck at 16 percent for years.

The Times shows the average mean salary for men 10 years out of business school is well over $400,000. For women it's about half of that. And, while men's salary progression is a straight upward trajectory well on its way to the half-million dollar mark, women's peaks in the $250,000 range and then trend down.

Since 2010, Harvard Business School has focused on increasing awareness of how students and faculty speak, study and socialize. Dr. Faust believes that because of its influence, the Harvard Business School has an "obligation to articulate values" to the entire business community.

Unfortunately, that includes the devaluation of women as business leaders, beginning when those women are students and feel "they have to choose between academic and social success."

It's hard to believe that women whose success in school and careers was sufficient to grant them entry into the rarified world of the Harvard Business School would still be susceptible to the pressures of adolescence. Social conditioning dies hard.

The Times says, '"judging from comments from male friends about women ('she's kind of hot but she's so assertive'), a 25-year old phenomenally successful female student said she feared her ambition could hurt what she called, half-jokingly, her 'social capitalization'."

A number of very successful women corporate directors interviewed for The Board Game: How Smart Women become Corporate Directors, got MBAs from Harvard several years ago. I'm sure they faced the same or worse attitudes as pioneers in those hollowed halls. But by the time many of these women got to HBS, they had grown up in "the men's worlds" of science, engineering and math. They learned early how to excel within a male-dominated environment.

These women represent a great argument for the STEM program for girls now underway in elementary schools. Teaching science, technology, engineering and math to young girls will probably be more effective than any other strategy in correcting the seemingly intractable imbalance between career opportunities for men and women.

The Board Game women obviously overcame even more egregiously exclusive behavior documented in the Times story."...Women never heard about many of the most lucrative jobs because the men traded contacts and tips among themselves."

A high-profile guest speaker advised women not to go into the venture capital field. He implied that "male partners did not want them there, and he was doing them a favor by warning them."

Board Game author, Betsy Berkhemer, found that the fields of private banking, private equity and investment banking are clear pathways to the boardroom for women today, as are undergraduate degrees in science, math and engineering.