Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Measurement of intangibles at Harvard Business School


I read this article, published in the New York Times on September 7, about the administration's efforts to ensure gender equity at Harvard Business School with a great deal of interest. It's partly for the detailed glimpse into another world, and it's partly due to some of the great comments people made.
But during [graduation] 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.”
The article is relevant here because of the focus of the administrators on measurement. Here's what they did:

* Turned what was subjective into an objective measure:  Women in the B School lagged in class participation - but participation grades are both subjective and dependent on memory. The business school administrators posted stenographers in every class so faculty no longer had to rely on their memories.

* Provided information quickly: As the reporter describes it, "[n]ew grading software tools let professors instantly check their calling and marking patterns by gender." Information was used to identify and change behavior, not to punish. In fact, it appears that the administrators pushed responsibility for change down to the front lines, making it a team effort. One professor stated that the message he got from the administration was: “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.” Management trusted workers to get the message, and to change.

* Developed a theory and tested it: the article reports that an additional factor, one the school really couldn't control, was contributing to the women's minimal participation. Social success was as important as academic success, possibly more important, and class participation could hurt social capital.

As you have probably surmised, all this was expensive and time consuming. At least so far, the B School administrators haven't been able to try other approaches. And it's too soon to tell whether salaries for men and women will be comparable 10 years or more after graduation. The atmosphere, as reported, sounds a lot better, but, as the article points out, the experiment brought with it unintended consequences and helped other issues - like class differences - surface. The story's not done yet, but the tale so far makes for fascinating reading. (The graphics online are much better than they were in the physical newspaper.) And so do the comments.

Update: This post has been updated to correct a typo.

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