Boston: When the members of the Harvard Business School class of 2013 gathered in May to celebrate the end of their studies, there was little visible evidence of the experiment they had undergone for the last two years. As they stood amid the brick buildings named after businessmen from Morgan to Bloomberg, the 905 graduates were united into one genderless mass.
But during that week's festivities, the Class Day speaker, a standout female student, alluded to "the frustrations of a group of people who feel ignored." Others grumbled that another speechmaker, a former chief executive of a company in steep decline, was invited only because she was a woman. At a reception, a male student in tennis whites blurted out, as his friends laughed, that much of what had occurred at the school had "been a painful experience."
He and his classmates had been unwitting guinea pigs in what would have once sounded like a far-fetched feminist fantasy: What if Harvard Business School gave itself a gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success?
The country's premier business training ground was trying to solve a seemingly intractable problem. Year after year, women who had arrived with the same test scores and grades as men fell behind. Attracting and retaining female professors was a losing battle.
Many Wall Street-hardened women confided that Harvard was worse than any trading floor. Some male students, many with finance backgrounds, commandeered classroom discussions and hazed female students and younger faculty members, and openly ruminated on whom they would "kill, sleep with or marry" (in cruder terms).
But in 2010, Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard's first female president, appointed a new dean - Nitin Nohria - who pledged to do far more than his predecessors to remake gender relations at the business school. He and his team tried to change how students spoke, studied and socialized. The administrators installed stenographers in the classroom to guard against biased grading, provided secret coaching for untenured female professors, and even departed from the hallowed case-study method.
The dean's ambitions extended far beyond campus. The school saw itself as the standard-bearer for American business. Turning around its record on women, the new administrators assured themselves, could have an untold impact at other business schools, at companies populated by Harvard alumni and in the Fortune 500, where only 21 chief executives are women. The institution would become a laboratory for studying how women speak in group settings, the links between romantic relationships and professional status, and the use of everyday measurement tools to reduce bias.
"We have to lead the way, and then lead the world in doing it," said Frances Frei, her words suggesting the school's sense of mission but also its self-regard.
By graduation, the school had become a markedly better place for female students, according to interviews with more than 70 professors, administrators and students, who cited more women participating in class, record numbers of women winning academic awards and a much-improved environment.
The administrators had no sense of whether their lessons would last once their charges left campus. As faculty members pointed out, the more exquisitely gender-sensitive the school environment became, the less resemblance it bore to the real business world. "Are we trying to change the world 900 students at a time, or are we preparing students for the world in which they are about to go?" a female professor asked.
Women at Harvard did fine on tests. But they lagged badly in class participation, a highly subjective measure that made up 50 percent of each final mark. Every year the same hierarchy emerged early on: Investment bank and hedge fund veterans, often men, sliced through equations while others - including many women - sat frozen or spoke tentatively. The deans did not want to publicly dwell on the problem: that might make the women more self-conscious. But they lectured about respect and civility, expanded efforts like hand-raising coaching and added stenographers in every class so professors would no longer rely on possibly biased memories of who had said what.
They rounded out the case-study method, in which professors cold-called students about a business's predicament, with a new course called Field, which grouped students into problem-solving teams. New grading software tools let professors instantly check their calling and marking patterns by gender. One professor, Mikolaj Piskorski, summarized Nohria's message later: "We're going to solve it at the school level, but each of you is responsible to identify what you are doing that gets you to this point."
After years of observation, administrators and professors agreed that one particular factor was torpedoing female class participation grades: Women, especially single women, often felt they had to choose between academic and social success.
The men at the top of the heap worked in finance, drove luxury cars and advertised lavish weekend getaways on Instagram, many students observed in interviews. Some belonged to "Section X," an on-again-off-again secret society of ultrawealthy, mostly male, mostly international students known for decadent parties and travel.
A few days before the end of the fall semester, Amanda Upton, an investment banking veteran, stood before most of her classmates, lecturing and quizzing them about finance. Every term just before finals, the Women's Student Association organized a review session for each subject, led by a student who blitzed classmates through reams of material in an hour. Upton delivered a bravado performance, clearing up confusion about discounted cash flow and how to price bonds, tossing out Christmas candy as rewards.
Like many other women, Kate Lewis, the school newspaper editor, believed in the deans' efforts. But she thought Upton's turn did more to fortify the image of women than anything administrators had done. "It's the most powerful message: This girl knows it better than all of you," she said.
BREAKING THE ICE
One day in April 2012, the entire first-year class, including Brooke Boyarsky, a Texan known for cracking up her classmates with a mock PowerPoint presentation, reported to classrooms for a mandatory discussion about sexual harassment. As students soon learned, one woman had confided to faculty members that a male student she would not identify had groped her in an off-campus bar months before. Rather than dismissing the episode, the deans decided to exploit it: This was their chance to discuss the drinking scene and its consequences. "They could not have gone any more front-page than this," Boyarsky said later.
Everyone in Boyarsky's classes knew she was incisive and funny, but within the campus social taxonomy, she was overlooked - she was overweight and almost never drank much, stayed out late or dated. After a few minutes of listening to the conversation about sexual harassment, she raised her hand to make a different point.
"Someone made the decision for me that I'm not pretty or wealthy enough to be in Section X," she told her classmates, her voice breaking.
The room jumped to life. The students said they felt overwhelmed by the wealth that coursed through the school, the way it seemed to shape every aspect of social life.
At the end of every semester, students gave professors teaching scores from a low of 1 to a high of 7, and some of the female junior faculty scores looked beyond redemption. More of the male professors arrived at Harvard after long careers, regaling students with real-life experiences. Because the pool of businesswomen was smaller, female professors were more likely to be academics, and students saw female stars as exceptions.
Take the popular second-year courses team-taught by Richard S. Ruback, a top finance professor, and Royce G. Yudkoff, a co-founder of a private equity firm that managed billions of dollars.
The two professors were blunt and funny. They embodied the financial promise of a Harvard business degree: If the professors liked you, students knew, they might advise and even back you.
As Frei reviewed her tapes at night, making notes as she went along, she looked for ways to instill that confidence. The women, who plainly wanted to be liked, sometimes failed to assert their authority. But when they were challenged, they turned too tough, responding defensively.
Frei urged them to project warmth and high expectations at the same time, to avoid trying to bolster their credibility with soliloquies about their own research. "I think the class might be a little too much about you, and not enough about the students," she would tell them.
Yet all the attention, along with other efforts to support female faculty, made no immediate impact on the numbers of female teachers. So few women were coming to teach at the school that evening out the numbers seemed almost impossible.
As their final semester drew to a close, the students were preoccupied with the looming question of their own employment. Like graduates before them, more men would be going into higher-paying areas like finance and more women going into lower-paying ones like marketing.
The deans had not focused on career choice, earning power or staying in the workforce; they felt they first needed to address campus issues. Besides, the earning gap posed a dilemma: They were hoping fewer students would default to finance as a career. "Have the courage to make the choices early in your life that are determined by your passions," Nohria told students.
Plenty of women had taken Ruback and Yudkoff's classes on acquiring and running businesses, including Upton, who had delivered the crackerjack finance presentation. She counted 30 to 40 classmates planning search funds, all men except for a no-nonsense engineer named Jennifer Braus. The professors eventually decided to finance and advise Braus, hoping other Harvard women would follow. "Nothing succeeds like success," Ruback said.
Upton decided to take a far lower-risk job managing a wealthy family's investments in Pittsburgh, where her fiance; lived. "You can either be a frontier charger or have an easier, happier life," she said.
Of all the ceremonies and receptions during graduation week, the most venerated was the George F. Baker Scholar Luncheon, for the top 5 percent of the class.
In recent years, the glory of the luncheon had been dimmed by discomfort at the low number of female honorees. But this year, almost 40 percent of the Baker scholars were women.
One of the Baker scholars was Boyarsky, the classroom truth-teller. Two hours after the luncheon, she stepped up to a lectern to address thousands of graduates, faculty members and parents. Of the two dozen or so men and only two women who had tried out before a student committee, she had beaten them all, with a witty, self-deprecating speech unlike any in the school's memory.
"I entered HBS as a truly 'untraditional applicant': morbidly obese," she said.
The theme of her speech was finding the courage to make necessary but painful changes. "Courage is a brand new HBS professor, younger than some of her students, teaching her very first class on her very first day," she said. "Courage is one woman" - the one who reported the groping episode - "who wakes the entire school up to the fact that gender relations still have a long way to go at HBS."
And, Boyarsky continued, she had lost more than 100 pounds during her final year at Harvard. "Courage was then me battling the urge to be defensive - something I believe I had been for a long time about this particular issue - and taking a hard, honest look within myself to figure out what had prevented change," she said.
Even before she finished, her phone was buzzing with emails and texts from classmates. She was the girl everyone wished they had gotten to know better, the graduation-week equivalent of the person whose obituary made you wish you had followed her work. She had closed the two-year experiment by making the best possible case for it. "This is the student they chose to show off to the world," said Youngme Moon, dean of the MBA program.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service