When second year HBS students (ECs) returned to class this year, they found themselves in a learning environment that differed from the first year in an unexpected way: some courses had significantly more women than the class as a whole, and some had significantly less. After a RC (first) year characterized by careful management by the school to ensure an equal distribution of men, women and foreign students in each section, many students were surprised to find that, when HBS made no such effort with elective courses, the results could be stark differences in the gender makeup of courses.
Incomplete data on the extent of the issue
In investigating the issue of gender differences in class enrollment, The Harbus viewed classcards (enrolment records) for 30 of the 47 courses offered in the Spring and Q3 terms in 2016. To complete our sample, we asked the school for the gender breakdown of all EC courses. Both the Registrar’s Office and Professor Robin Ely, faculty chair of HBS’s Gender Initiative declined to provide the data. Prof Ely, in a letter written in response to emailed questions from The Harbus, explained that this was ‘in accordance with longstanding policy’. (Prof Ely consented to this letter being posted online. It is available here).
As a result, our sample is incomplete. We compiled it by asking students to send us the classcards of courses in which they were enrolled. While we asked students to send us classcards for all courses – regardless of gender ratio, it is reasonable to assume our sample may be biased toward courses with more aberrant gender ratios. However we reject the assertion in Prof Ely’s letter that: “given the large number of electives in the second year, Steve’s sample is limited, with a reliance on the extremes of the spectrum.” We feel 30 out of 47 subjects is a reasonable representation. While the sample is incomplete, HBS has had, and still has, the opportunity to provide students with more accurate data.
11 of 30 courses significantly over-index to one gender or another
Our sample includes 11 courses, of 30 examined and 47 offered, where the gender balance of the class was 10 percentage points different from the balance of the class as a whole. The Class of 2016 was 41% female and 59% male as of August 2014. One section of one course was 84% male, while another course was 93% female. The full list of courses with a 10 percentage point skew is presented below. Given the small enrolment of some courses, not all of these differences are statistically significantly different from the class-wide ratio, but were noticeably different none the less.
|Course||Total enrolment||% Men||% Women||Women delta to whole class|
|Understanding and Influencing Operations as an Investor||34||85%||15%||-26%|
|Managing the Financial Firm||55||78%||22%||-19%|
|Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition||77||78%||22%||-19%|
|Building Sustainable Cities||83||72%||28%||-13%|
|Entrepreneurship and Technology Innovation in Education||52||44%||56%||15%|
|How Star Women Succeed||90||7%||93%||52%|
Courses where the proportion of women was more than 10 percentage points greater than the 41% of women in the Class of 2016 as a whole.
Significant gender disparities are noticeable to some students, and can affect their learning experience
In her letter, Prof Ely says that gender skews are not necessarily a problem, and reflect the ‘free market’ nature of EC course selection, as well as differences in men’s and women’s interests, and gender skews in real-world industries. She said she would be concerned, however, “if some groups—whether women or men—felt unwelcome or uncomfortable in a course that happened to be numerically skewed in favor of one sex or the other. “ In that situation, she wrote, “I would hope that [affected students] would raise their concerns with the faculty member, who would then be even more conscious than usual about creating an inclusive environment in his/her classroom.”
While a large number of students who were uncomfortable with the gender composition of their classes spoke directly to us, we are aware of only one example of a student who approached their professor about the gender environment of the class. (We hope that, if nothing else, this article encourages more students to speak to their professors about the issue.)
A female student told me that the gender skew of a course had influenced her decision to unenroll from the course. She asked not to be named, because she had not previously publicly voiced this view. The gender balance, she said, “was pretty bad, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of time and effort [in] my last semester trying to “prove” myself, which is what I feel I am forced to do in highly male classrooms.” In saying this, the student, referred to recently published research from the University of Washington that found men tended to rate the intelligence of other men higher, even when those men earned the same grade as their female peers.
One male student, who was one of six men out of the 90 students who took How Star Women Succeed, spoke about his experience. He asked not to be named for the same reasons. He admitted to feeling that most days “the group doesn’t value me or want me there”, but that this experience of being the minority in the room was “the value of the class for me…I get to see what it’s like to be in a minority group for 80 minutes two or three times per week, and I’m more aware of these dynamics in a way I wasn’t before. This has been an invaluable experience that will stay with me long after I forget about any specific case.”
In addition to affecting some students’ experience of courses, the skews are the subject of discussions about gender stereotypes. One student observed on Facebook the types of subjects with large gender skews suggests that “All the stereotypes are playing out.” Another told me that the gender skews she observed supported a ‘depressing hypothesis’ she held that gender influenced students’ risk profiles and willingness to engage with emerging markets.
Another effect of gender skews in subjects relates to the way in which HBS allocates EC course enrolment. Students provide a list of subjects in order of preference, and these are allocated via lottery. When a course is heavily over subscribed, largely by students of the same gender, it makes it less likely that those students who are enrolled will also gain enrolment in other high-demand courses. For instance, female students who used their first course pick to gain enrolment in How Star Women Succeed were then far less likely to also gain enrollment in other competitive courses like Creating Value Through Corporate Restructuring. This could leave those other courses with a less female enrolment than they otherwise would have.
It is clearly the case that many students do not notice or care about these gender differences. But it was telling that, of the students who contacted me, or who I spoke to, for this story, the vast majority were women.
Gender in the classroom matters to students and HBS, at least sometimes
Like at least some of its students, HBS believes that the gender composition of a classroom matters to the learning experience of the students within it. The school ensures that RC sections have representative proportions of women and non-US passport holders. These are the only demographic variables the school controls for in section composition. On the school’s website, it outlines the value of this carefully managed diversity, writing that “The section’s rich mix of backgrounds, interests, experiences, and ambitions reflects the greater diversity of the class and much of the world as well.”
The question, then, does not seem to be whether gender skews matter. The question is whether it makes sense for the school to avoid them in first year, while not seeking to manage them in second year. Prof Ely makes the case that: “The structure of the RC and EC years is set up to be at once different and complementary, with the School laying the foundations with required courses in the first year and the students following their personal interests and intentions in the second.
Steve Hind (HBS ’16) is a Harbus contributor and previously served as CEO and Editor in Chief. He is the Effective Altruism Chair of the Social Enterprise Club. He was previously a consultant at BCG.
Established in 1937, The Harbus News Corporation is the independent student news publisher of Harvard Business School.