The dean of the Harvard Business School made an extraordinary public apology on Monday in San Francisco for his school’s past behavior toward women. At a ballroom in the Ritz Carlton Hotel before 600 alumni and guests, Dean Nitin Nohria acknowledged that HBS had sometimes treated its female students and professors offensively.
Nohria conceded there were times when women at Harvard felt “disrespected, left out, and unloved by the school. I’m sorry on behalf of the business school,” he told a hushed room. “The school owed you better, and I promise it will be better.”
Among other things, Nohria pledged to more than double the percentage of women who are protagonists in Harvard case studies over the next five years, to 20%. Currently, about 9% of Harvard case studies — which account for 80% of the cases studied at business schools around the world — have women as protagonists. He said he would meet with HBS faculty on Wednesday to discuss the objective.
Many of the women in the audience, including more than 100 Harvard alumnae who were being honored by the HBS Association of Northern California for their impact on business and the community, let out an audible sigh at the 20% goal, thinking it was not ambitious enough. But they were unaware that the dean’s objective would amount to a more than doubling of the current cases in which women are portrayed as central leaders in business problems.
His comments come five months after a lengthy front-page article in The New York Times that described the school’s efforts to deal with gender inequality. The story fueled a major debate on gender issues at Harvard and many other business schools, bringing attention to a problem that is rarely discussed or acknowledged openly. Business schools remain male-dominated cultures where men account for the vast majority of students, faculty, and administrators.
Nohria’s newly stated objective for case studies would have a big impact on the way leadership is taught in the world’s business schools because almost all MBA students are exposed to HBS cases. His new initiative would be as ambitious as a previous effort by the school to make its case studies more global. Today, some 57% of Harvard’s cases are international in nature, up from less than 5% a decade ago. The school produces roughly 250 new case studies a year.
At the event, Nohria said that a record 41% of this year’s entering class of MBAs were women, up from 35% 10 years ago and only 25% in the class of 1985. “A lot of people wondered if we had to put a thumb on the scale,” he said, to reach the record female enrollment number. “Everyone of those women deserve to be at Harvard Business School.”
Harvard Business School began to admit women to its two-year MBA program in 1963 with eight students. Last year, the school ran a series of events to celebrate the 50th anniversary, using the shorthand “W50” to acknowledge the milestone. The school now has 11,000 MBA alumnae around the globe, including more than 1,200 women in Northern California.
The dean also told the group that last year’s class of female MBA graduates at Harvard received a higher percentage of academic honors than their actual representation in the class of 2013. A record 38% of last year’s Baker Scholars were women. Baker Scholars are graduates who make up the top 5% of Harvard’s graduating class.
Noting a recent World Economic Forum report that showed the U.S. trailing more than 20 other countries when it comes to women in leadership roles, Nohria said “we can do better and we must do better. Harvard Business School has to lead the way to make that happen. We are taking many steps to ensure that W50 is not an event.”
Besides the effort to “dramatically” increase the number of female protagonists in case studies, Nohria also pledged to launch a program to help more women serve on boards of directors and to more meaningfully encourage mentorship of female students and alumni. “We want to make sure the school provides pathways for alumni to help each other,” added Nohria.
He said that some thought it “quaint” when Harvard first admitted women to the business school some 50 years ago and some could think it as quaint that he wants to increase female protagonists to 20%. “More than anything else, you have my deep and solid commitment that the entire school will be more open to and encouraging to women,” Nohria vowed. “These ideas will only be quaint unless we work relentlessly to improve things.”
Organizers of the event — the first alumni chapter gathering to celebrate women — say The Times article pushed Harvard’s hand. The idea to recognize exceptional alumnae in the area was largely prompted as a way to demonstrate the impact made by HBS women through their leadership roles in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Organizers said the gala’s 600 seats sold out within three weeks.
“We couldn’t be more pleased that the Association is celebrating the achievements of these women and building on the momentum of our 50th anniversary of women in the MBA program.” said Nohria. “The women being honored are wonderful examples of leadership in their professions, their communities, and their family lives. They embody the HBS mission.”
The Northern California alumni group also announced what it called the first fellowship for young women who have been admitted to HBS from the Bay Area. The club said it already had commitments for $500,000 toward a $1.5 million endowment for a fellowship that would fund several women each year.