Harvard Business School Case Study

Jodi Kantor wrote a great article this past week about an experiment that took place over the last two years at HBS.  What came across is that Harvard realized that they had gender issues and they wanted to attract more female contenders and make sure they had a positive experience vs spending two years in a hostile male dominated environment. 

There are several interesting points that Jodi writes about in the article but I found the most relevant is that many women felt that they had to make a choice between the academic world and the social world.  Some of the smartest women felt that they could not appear too smart because they would be perceived as too aggressive or too assertive and that could hurt them in the long run from a job to even meeting a great guy.

Did anyone think that did not exist?  I kept thinking about the article all weekend.  This week I keynoted a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico on Skype.  It is strange doing that but I could not be there and was delighted to speak to this audience of over 100 women.  The event was for the tech community festival and LIsa Abeyta asked me to speak as she was putting something together geared specifically for women.  I met LIsa the Womens Entrepreneur Fesitval last year. 

When I was putting some notes together about what I would talk about I had that article in the back of my head and then something happened over the weekend which I wanted to share with the audience. We were out in Brooklyn this weekend helping our oldest daughter Jessica look at apartments.  When you work with any broker they make you sign a piece of paper acknowledging that they showed you the place first just in case someone else shows it to you and you end up renting it through someone else they get compensated.  We had signed a few over the morning at some open houses.

In the afternoon we ended up meeting a male broker who was going to take us out to see four places.  We were hanging out on the corner waiting for him when he came out with the clip board and the paper to sign.  The first people he had to pass through was both Jessica and me.  He walked right through us and handed the clipboard and pen to Fred to sign. 

After he walked away I said to Jessica, do you think there will be a time in our lifetime when people don't go directly to the man when financial documents like this have to be signed?  Her answer made me laugh but resonated.  She said not until all women are as intimidating as you are…and I mean that in a good way. 

So I wrap up this blog thinking about all the women I mentor and speak to, be bold, be assertive, show them how smart you are because if you don't then change will never happen.  Social is one thing but when it comes to school or business, show them what you got. 

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Comments (Archived):

  1. meredithcollinz

    Hear, hear.

  2. Susan Rubinsky

    Your daughter is awesome. Obviously a reflection of you. (I also read that article and it’s hanging around in my mind too)

  3. William Mougayar

    Couldn’t he have asked Who wants to sign this? My wife would have later said about him “he’s an ass”.

  4. Olivia

    Love this. Amen.

  5. Kylie Sachs

    I have a lot of mixed feelings about the article, as an HBS grad, but the bottom line for me is the facts are the facts and I am glad to see HBS try to do better. I always knew the school to be proactive with these types of issues and while it may be far from perfect, at least the administration is not burying its head in the sand. It made me remember an incident I had post grad where an alum assumed I was not his classmate (http://realtismoi.wordpress… at a school event…there will always be dopes in the world. And finally, good for your daughter. Maybe she will choose not to hire him one day when she runs the world 🙂

  6. fredwilson

    I should have taken it from him and handed it to Jessica. #notetoself

    1. Lisa Abeyta

      Isn’t it funny how even men who are among the most supportive of their wives and daughters still fall very easily into long-standing assumptions about our roles when a situation like this arises? I’ve seen it in my own family, too. But in noticing and verbalizing the times we fall into those predefined roles, we help move the line slightly so that maybe we, as women, don’t have to be quite so scary to be seen as equally capable. (Loved this insight in Joanne’s talk yesterday!)

  7. Brandon Burns

    “Some of the smartest women felt that they could not appear too smart because they would be perceived as too aggressive or too assertive and that could hurt them in the long run from a job to even meeting a great guy.”From a high level, HBS aside, this is not a female centric problem, (especially when it comes to the meeting a great guy/gal part!). Everyone feels this. Most people don’t want to go to the bar and come off too bookish, and most don’t want to go to the networking event and come off unqualified.But, as Jessica alluded to, acting with confidence, in which ever way is true to yourself, will attract others who are on the same page as you and get you the respect you deserve (usually).That said, the environment can change one’s ability to act with confidence. That’s why some people go to bookish bars in Fort Greene vs. fist pumping clubs in Meatpacking. You have little chance of controlling or changing either of those environments, but you can control which one you place yourself in.However, when it comes to HBS (and the bars, actually) the folks who run the place have the ability to change the environment. And it sounds like that’s what needs to happen here.But while I don’t doubt that there are male-dominance issues at HBS, the underlying sociology behind this is not female-centric. Some environments are conducive to certain types of behavior, favoring a specific personality type, gender, race, socio-economic class, etc. I’m sure men at Vassar have similar complaints, as do white people at Howard University, underprivileged kids who’ve recently found themselves in power positions, privileged people visiting poor areas, gay people in straight dominated situations, etc. Everyone gets insecure when they’re in an environment that doesn’t cater to them.That said, when we can, especially in the academic sector and in the workplace, we should strive to create environments that make everyone feel comfortable. And, now armed with data, HBS should take an opportunity to lead that charge.

  8. meaghanrose

    Thanks for posting this! These kind of subtle things that happen to girls and young women for years and result in a subconscious feeling that they aren’t the ones that make decisions – that they aren’t a leader. Its a societal thing – even other women are guilty of doing it sometimes. Its kind of tragic really because we’re disempowering so many smart & passionate people! The response from your daughter was awesome (and true), but in a way kind of sad too. Why does there have to be one stereotype of what a smart woman looks like? Successful, smart men have many different styles & personalities. I hope one day soon you dont have to act like a certain female archetype to get respect. In any case, I’m glad people are finally calling it out and starting to change it!

  9. LE

    The first people he had to pass through was both Jessica and me. He walked right through us and handed the clipboard and pen to Fred to sign. Both my ex girlfriend (and my wife) are physicians.Even when I’m wearing a tshirt and dungarees (which is pretty much what I always wear) people always target me much the same as you are relating happened with Fred. I’ve even had other doctors do that when they knew my wife/girlfriend was the “doctor”. Along the same lines my wife had problems when she changed hospitals with the nurses who assumed she was also a nurse and they didn’t treat her with the respect that they do “male” doctors at the same hospital. I’ve heard a few stories like that from women physicians. [1]Separately famous story that David Geffen tells as far as how he landed John Lennon as a client. He targeted Yoko while everyone else targeted John. (See the excellent PBS on David Geffen if you haven’t already).Personally I don’t feel any need to get upset at all over people who make snap judgements over appearance. I’m not a tall guy so I’ve learned to use that to my advantage when negotiating and trying to get something from someone who initially might not take me to seriously (not wearing a suit plays into this btw.) Because I don’t look the part of someone to be taken seriously and people don’t play their best game and they make mistakes.[1] When I’ve given my wife advice on negotiating with her job she is normally pretty scared to follow what I say feeling that the moves I give her are “to bold”. But at her last job, after she was done (and had followed what I said) she not only got more money but her boss actually complemented her and said jokingly that he wanted her to help with his contract negotiation.

  10. LE

    be bold, be assertive, show them how smartMy personal feeling is that it makes more sense (as I mentioned in my other comment) to lay low and strike when the opportunity is there and use to your advantage the false sense of security people think they have with you. So let them think you are nobody and wait for the opening. Then mow them over with logic and intelligence.I’ve had this happen on condo boards vs. the people who are attorneys/doctors and show up all dressed up and important. In the end if you say something that makes sense and you put in the effort people will fully understand who they are dealing with. It’s no trick to be taken seriously if you look and present yourself like Mitt Romney or even Michael Bloomberg.

  11. Lisa Abeyta

    Loved your talk yesterday, Joanne. In case you’re wondering whether you had an impact, I thought I’d share what happened after the event: a young woman came up and introduced herself to me. She’d come for the extra credit being offered from one of the men speaking on the panel that followed your talk; he is a professor of entrepreneurship at our local university. She said that after listening to your keynote and the panel discussion, that she’d decided she’d spent long enough debating about the idea of launching her business, and that now it was time to be bold, to be brave and to be brash. Pretty exciting to think that an hour out of your day changed the future of another young woman entrepreneur. Thank you for taking time to talk to us – it was fantastic!

  12. Susan Dayton

    During the late 70’s, the feminists who were upper-class protagonists were not inclined to address the class struggle between being white and black. It was about feminism. Upper class women can still obtain a better status than those who are not so privileged. Schools = networking opportunities. Best practice is to encourage those who might be so motivated to create new business opportunities.

  13. denmeade

    In my, relatively limited, experience informally mentoring younger women at work, the question I’ve been asked most often is how to act assertively without appearing to be strident or unlikeable. I know it’s a issue Sheryl Sandberg has written about. It’s an interesting challenge. I take my work seriously – (over)doing my homework, backing my judgement, challenging woolly thinking etc. but being overly earnest isn’t in my nature.Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

  14. pointsnfigures

    Agree with you. Ironically, my wife handles 99% of the day to day mundane finances. Sometimes she has to hand me the phone when she is talking to a representative just so they hear me say, “ok”. When I was trading, virtually every asset I had was in my wife’s name. Having daughters, we try to empower them.I try to treat everyone the same. But I heard Ms. Sandberg speak, and she set up a situation: If you see an older man at a bar with someone in their 20’s at 6PM-what do you think? Same situation, women in her 20’s-what goes through your head?After her thing I waited in line and gave her my Rosie the Riveter keychain.I think the ironic thing is I am probably totally opposite of most of the people that read this blog-I am a conservative.

    1. Gotham Gal

      nice! rosie the riveter keychain.

  15. cjwesterberg

    This is such an enormous issue – “be bold, show them how smart you are” – it depends where one is. If one has FU money, then one can do that (a bit easier?)If one has nothing, then one can do that (what’s to lose?)What about the non-outliers or the ones who don’t have the support?Not all can. Compliance is honored and promoted to many who do not have the means or the back-up. I Love this conversation, whether it be a woman stereotype, a “smart” stereotype, a “boy” or “minority” stereotype, an ideology, any stereotype or bias. I write often about pegging students in education and how this continues as an albatross so early!. . . in higher ed and in the workplace, social, etc.Smart kids can’t experiment and make mistakes for fear of being dumb after being labeled as smart and vice versa.One book that you may be interested is (not mine so no promo here) Whistling Vivaldi – And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.This is the Conversation, Joanne, not so much women vs. men. Woo-hoo – Go!

  16. laurie kalmanson

    grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrinvite them to make a gift to girls who code?

    1. Gotham Gal

      ha. exactly.