Study Examines Harvard's Academic Gender Gap

While the disparity has lessened, there is still work to be done, the study's authors say.

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Can you imagine a business school professor advising a group of 25-year-old male entrepreneurs to "act demure" when meeting with a group of potential investors? Probably not—yet it's the advice I once received after presenting a successful business plan with two other women to a panel of judges and venture capitalists. We were the only all-female team participating, and when they introduced us to an audience of hundreds of people, they called us "The Spice Girls." Not cool.

Although more than a decade has passed since I earned my M.B.A., the academic gender gap is still a hot-button issue in management education. At Harvard Business School, where women make up 36 percent of the class of 2011, proportionally more men than women receive academic honors, a study published recently in The Harbus reveals.

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A team of second-year women, advised by Professor Kathleen McGinn and in collaboration with the Harvard Business School administration, set out to understand why there's a marked historical difference between men and women's academic performance. The group surveyed other second-year students to understand how personal, demographic, and social factors affect students' academic achievement in their first year at Harvard.

Though encouraged to find that the academic achievement gap between women and men has narrowed—women accounted for 30 percent of first-year honors recipients in 2010—the study's authors argue there is still progress to be made, particularly considering that the survey results also suggest men have a better academic experience than women at HBS. While they may be nearing parity in academic performance, women don't view their experience as positively as men do, the researchers discovered.

Various theories emerged as the group tried to get to the bottom of why an academic achievement gap exists. One theory—that women underperform because they're uncomfortable speaking in class—was substantiated by the women surveyed.

"Qualitative comments suggest that some women may feel less comfortable participating due to their perceived difference in academic and professional backgrounds from their male peers," the authors report. "Additionally, women often struggle to balance social and professional relationships; many women admit to self-editing in the classroom to manage their out-of-classroom image."

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My informal observations, gathered through discussions with clients over 10 years of consulting, mirror those findings. Even the brightest, most driven, and most ambitious women feel intimidated in the classroom and tend to censor themselves during discussion. Whereas men typically speak what's on their mind and move on, women take time to think about what they will say, say it without total confidence, and then spend time wondering if what they said was OK or appropriate.

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Often, women feel a need to prove themselves academically and yet balance that with wanting to project a certain image outside of class— one that is not overly bookish. The study's authors discarded the theory that women care less about intellectual pursuits than men do, saying their analysis shows that women place more importance on academics than men and spend significantly more time preparing for class. The cold calling and case study method is very stressful for a lot of women in business school. Despite the preparation, I've observed that many women would prefer to quietly soak up the information rather than get thrown into a debate and risk being thought of poorly by their peers.

As for why men have a more positive experience at HBS than women, the student researchers found that section dynamics play a far greater role in the academic experience for women than their male counterparts. Creating a section environment that is supportive of all students will be the key to improving women's academic experience, they conclude.

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This achievement gap is not limited to Harvard; the authors found similar discrepancies across eight unnamed peer business schools. However, women's groups elsewhere tend to focus solely on career-oriented efforts or boosting female enrollment rather than on the achievement issue. Therefore, the women who conducted this study believe "Harvard has the opportunity to be the leader in raising awareness of the problem and work to close the gap in business schools nationwide."

Just one day after The Harbus published this study, several media outlets reported that women in the United States now earn more advanced degrees than men do, according to the latest census data. While this may point to a historic shift in gender roles, the data show women still trail men in fields such as business, science and engineering. The b–school classroom in some ways mirrors society, and there is a certain double standard around ambitious and high-achieving women. So it is in this type of environment that women must find a way to be sharp and successful but also be women. As to whether they should act "demure," I'll leave that to my fellow businesswomen to decide.