It Will Be OK

Copyright Emma Toshack, 2013.

Becky Cooper Nadis and Alana Hedlund respond to Jodi Kantor’s recent coverage of HBS in The New York Times.

To the RCs: It will be ok.

You may have seen an article in the NY Times about gender relations at HBS (or maybe you saw it on Facebook.  Or maybe it was emailed to you by everyone you know.)  We saw it too, many, many times, and wanted to reassure you if you’re freaking out. We freaked out too, and while we won’t argue with anyone else’s experience of this place, we didn’t recognize the HBS that the article described. We hope you read Youngme Moon’s letter – it was pretty great, and far more articulate than we are likely to be.

While never explicitly stated, the NY Times article implied that this is an uncomfortable and unpleasant place to be a woman. We can’t speak for everyone, but we disagree. We’re unapologetic feminists, and we love this place.

Like all career focused women (and people), we struggle to balance work/school with our personal lives.  Is that harder here?  There are more professional and academic opportunities at HBS than anywhere we’ve ever been in our lives.  But the shared, sometimes overwhelming experience of HBS also creates the opportunity to develop deep, meaningful connections.  Those relationships have been sustaining to both our personal and professional lives.

HBS provides a place where people from all walks of life can cross paths.  This community is more diverse than any other in which you’re likely to participate.  Students come from all over the world; some have money and some don’t; some will go into the upper echelons of finance, while others are headed to non-profit careers.  Don’t be intimidated by anyone’s experience – take it as an opportunity to learn from them and to figure out what you bring to the table.  We all deserve to be here – and by the end of the first year, you’ll be able to throw out equations with the best of them.

Having such a diverse community is sometimes challenging – preconceived notions are exposed and deconstructed, sometimes there are tough conversations.  Is it paternalistic and heavy handed that the administration makes us have them?  Maybe.  It can feel a little forced sometimes.  But as we reflect on it, we’re willing to trade a few hours of awkward discussion in order to have inclusive, dynamic sections we live in now.  And it’s also good training for the future – it’s important to practice having hard, honest conversations.

HBS has gender issues – but it’s living on the bleeding edge of trying to solve them

Gender inequality exists.  It exists everywhere, and that includes HBS. However, HBS is like the best, most inclusive workplace you can find. The structural societal issues are still at play, and there are going to be some bumps, but these issues are out in the open. And for that we’d also like to thank our male classmates; classmates who have engaged in the conversations about work-life balance, listened respectfully to our points of view, and added their own.

As for the inequality, let’s start with grades.  As the NY Times notes, the ‘intractable’ grade problem has been ‘tracted’, so to speak.  The number of female Baker scholars is now representative of the proportion of women on campus.   The faculty and the administration get kudos for using new technology to even the playing field. Equally, female students have earned their place here and have earned the honors they have achieved.  To suggest otherwise is patronizing and frankly, offensive.

And that faculty?  Between the two of us, we had eight female professors in our first year.  Some of them were new, some of them were seasoned.  The same is true of our male professors.  Teaching the case method is incredibly challenging, and we can’t speak to what it feels like to be in front of 90 MBA students for the first time.  But HBS institutions, such as our awesome Ed Reps, gave us a structured way to help them learn and police our own classroom behavior.

We wish that there were more female case protagonists and more female professors.  We love the ones who are here, and we would love some more.  Nitin, we’ll be making a new version of that graph for our 5–year reunion before we cut any checks.

What’s our experience been?

People often work obsessively hard here – they also play hard.  But both of those things are optional. Becky went to one weeknight party (The District party was awesome) last year.  Alana was social chair of her section and went out, let’s say, more.  We both have lots of friends, our grades turned out fine, we both landed great internships in our respective industries of choice.  You do need to make decisions about how you allocate your time, but you aren’t facing a stark choice between dating and success.

We also haven’t heard anyone refer to their ‘social capital’.  Hopefully you don’t start doing this.  That would be really annoying.

It’s easy to laugh at the section norms discussions – and we all like to collectively groan when we’re heading into them – but they’ve served us well as we head into our second year.  Our sections have become healthy communities: not by accident, but because of our classmates’ efforts to be honest about their values and their vision for what this place could be, and their decision to live by those values.

The administration is flexible and open to discussion.  Email Rawi with concerns, and he’ll get back to you – but don’t blame us when you’re then chairing a committee to fix the problem.  (Rawi, you can thank us later for the shout-out).

What can you do?

Leadership matters.  If you want to shape the culture, take ownership of it.  Plan your retreat, run for L&V Rep, invite people over to talk about their backgrounds or their beliefs.

Assume good intentions – give people the benefit of the doubt.  Twenty seconds of class airtime can be just long enough to lodge your foot deeply down your throat.  Be willing to call people out when you’re offended, but know that they’re probably coming from a good place. Forgiveness is a major virtue.

Be honest about who you are, be curious about other people and be adaptable.  Change is good for the soul.  And didn’t we all come here to be transformed?

Becky and Alana are ECs at Harvard Business School. For more information about this or other articles, email us at general@harbus.org.

Photo Credit: Emma Toshack, 2013. http://emtoshack.com/

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2 thoughts on “It Will Be OK

  1. Greg Durst

    Becky & Alana,

    Well said and much appreciated! As a former Publisher of the Harbus, this kind of careful, thoughtful reflection on a potentially explosive (or overblown?) issue makes me proud.

    I am also a member of the Class of 1998, who’s Section G misogynist shenanigans made the front page of the Boston Globe. Your style and grace suggested by your writing reminds me of a number of powerful, switched on women who endured the Section G experience and remain high impact, thoughtful leaders in the world – who just happen to be outstanding HBS grads…

    Thanks again,

    Greg

    Reply