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On Monday night, Nitin Nohria, dean of the Harvard Business School (HBS), stood in the packed ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco and said, "I'm sorry," to a crowd gathered to honor more than 100 Harvard alumnae by the HBS Association of Northern California. Nohria was making an extraordinary public apology to female students and faculty — past and present — for being "disrespected, left out, and unloved." He continued, "The school owed you better, and I promise it will be better."
In his speech, he also committed to quantifiable changes, including doubling the number of female protagonists used in case studies (real-life situations and analyses used by the school instead of textbooks) from nine percent to 20 percent. Harvard's case studies are used by as many as 80 percent of business schools internationally, so this change could have an impact on the perception of women business leaders around the world.
It wasn't the first time Nohria had apologized for gender issues at HBS, according to Brian Kenny, the school's communication director. "In many communications, he's acknowledged it hasn't always been a welcoming place," Kenny told Yahoo Shine.
Still, Nohria's latest attempt has garnered widespread attention and strong reactions from both press and alumnae.
Commenting on an article about the event in Fortune, alumna Betsy Masar wrote, "I too am from HBS in the '80s, and I was even one of the honorees at the dinner. I think that it's a shame that the problems he's pointing out are still problems. And I am grateful that he is standing up and saying something about it. I would have liked it to be otherwise, but guess what, he's talking about it. And he's putting the resources of a great institution behind the change. Thank goodness."
Another alum tweeted:
Humbled to be an honoree at the HBS W50 Gala, and proud to be an HBS alum; Thanks Dean Nohria for your inspiring words! @HBSAlumni
— privahini (@Privahini) January 28, 2014
Not everyone was so quick to applaud Nohria's speech, however. Writing about the event in Slate, Katy Waldman grumbled, "Frankly, I hope that any school charging $50,000 a year in tuition would be open and encouraging to everyone it admits. This whole mea culpa smacks of gesture and performance: Nohria's one concrete vow, to teach woman-centered case studies one-fifth of the time, feels underwhelming in a world where we make up half of the population."
What she's missing is that the speech comes after three years of turning around a Wolf of Wall Street-like culture of gender bias at HBS that once seemed intractable. Nor was she in the ballroom where the audience reacted with excitement. "The whole evening was electric," the event's closing speaker, Cathleen Benko, class of '89, vice chairman and chief talent officer for Deloitte LLP and author of The Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance in the Changing World of Work, told Yahoo Shine. She added, "Under his leadership over the last couple of years, the school has done a remarkable job — a soulful and transparent job — of looking into the gender labyrinth [that existed]."
Nohria was appointed in 2010 by Harvard's first female president, Drew Gilpin Faust, and tasked, in part, with improving the status of women and international students. A New York Times article published in September 2013 outlined some of the historical and rampant sexism at the institution, including the hazing of female students and junior faculty members (one-third of whom quit between 2006 and 2007), as well as male students bullying women into silence in the classroom, where participation often counted for 50 percent of the grade. "You weren't supposed to talk about it in open company," Professor Kathleen L. McGinn told the Times. "It was a dirty secret that wasn't discussed."
Under Nohria's leadership, HBS tackled the gender gap with methods such as coaching female professors, monitoring classrooms for unfair grading, and addressing widespread sexual harassment (which John Byrne, executive editor of Businessweek, described as a "Mad Men culture"). HBS even produced a data-driven, critical case study of itself and its failures to serve women students. While some students have chafed at what they felt was force-fed political correctness, the results achieved in the last three years have been impressive. "Women make up almost half of the incoming class," says Benko. "The gender gap for grades has closed, as has that of student satisfaction." In 2009, women made up only 11 percent of Baker Scholars, students in the top five percent of the class. Now that number is a notable 38 percent.
This year, HBS is celebrating what it calls W50, the 50th anniversary of women being admitted into the institution. At the celebration's kickoff back in April 2013, famous alum Sheryl Sandberg spoke about the fact that, for the incoming class of eight women in 1963, "they did not take the urinals out of the restroom. That took a little time. A woman I met from that class told me, 'It was as if they were saying, "We're not quite sure this whole girl thing will work out. And if it doesn't, we don't have to reinstall the urinals, so we'll just leave them there."'" She went on to praise the school's current administration: "They were determined to change. They decided they would go around, classroom to classroom, and say that openly. No one ever said that when I was here," she added. "They said, 'We are going to define leadership differently. Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.'"
— Sarah B. Weir
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