Change is Hard: Women at HBS

I’m always proud of my two alma maters, but I’m especially proud when they lead the way toward change in the world.

For example, Stanford recently became the first college with an African-American Athletic Director, head football coach, and head men’s basketball coach…a fact which is even more powerful because nobody at Stanford bothered to note the historical milestone.

Harvard Business School has also been leading change, with a major initiative to improve the lot of women faculty and students.  Dean Nitin Nohria and Professor Frances Frei led a comprehensive effort to reform the school and eradicate gender bias, including numerous courses and talks, as well as structural changes in the classroom:

The results were impressive, including all time highs in terms of percentage of female students, and percentage of female Baker Scholars (awarded to the top 5% of the class).  Yet the effort also sparked resentment from many male students:

“I’d like to be candid, but I paid half a million dollars to come here,” another man said in an interview, counting his lost wages. “I could blow up my network with one wrong comment.” The men were not insensitive, they said; they just considered the discussion a poor investment of their carefully hoarded social capital. Mr. Erker used the same words as many other students had to describe the mandatory meetings: “forced” and “patronizing.”

I’m always amazed by how aggrieved the privileged feel when their privilege is challenged.  Yet I probably shouldn’t be surprised–humans focus on relative as opposed to absolute status; losing any freedom or privilege is viewed as a serious loss, even if that loss still leaves you in the top 1%.  The message these men were sending with their comments was simple: “I’m paying for this experience, and you shouldn’t be degrading my experience simply to improve someone else’s”  They wouldn’t want to admit it, but that’s the unvarnished essence of their words.

Fortunately, the team at HBS persisted through the predictable squawking of the male students.  By persisting, they can take advantage of another fundamental principle of human psychology–hedonic adaptation.  By the time the next few classes roll around, the male students will be looking at the world from a new, fairer baseline of behavior.

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