As Academic Gender Gap Declines, There is Still Work to be Done

Women entering business school are well aware that they’ll be outnumbered by men. However, many HBS women were shocked by a Harbus article last year reporting a marked historical difference between men and women’s academic performance (see Graph A).

Following this revelation, a team of EC women, advised by Professor Kathleen McGinn and collaborating with the HBS administration replica watches, set out to understand these surprising statistics and began asking the Toyota “5 whys?” to identify both root causes and potential solutions to this issue.

As part of our work, we conducted a survey of EC students to understand how personal, demographic, and social factors affect students’ academic achievement in their RC year. Our findings are encouraging: the gap between the academic performance of men and women at HBS has narrowed.  Women make up 36% of Class of 2011 and account for 30% of first year honors recipients. Furthermore, the results of our survey suggest that there was no significant difference between the average RC grade of male and female respondents after controlling for other demographic factors.[1] This indicates a significant reduction in the academic achievement gap.

However, there is still progress to be made. Women continue to receive proportionally less academic honors than men do and we must ensure that any improvement is sustained going forward. Additionally, results from our survey suggest that men have a better academic experience than women at HBS. Thus, although women may be nearing parity in average academic performance, they do not view their experience as positively as men do. This is in stark contrast to findings from academic literature on gender and happiness, which show that on average women report greater life satisfaction than men.

WHY #1: Why has there been an academic achievement gap //

Although it is encouraging that the gap is closing, we must still ask why there has been any disparity. Regression analysis suggests that there are four variables that significantly impact academic performance of BOTH men and women:1) pre-HBS demographic factors; 2) self-rated comfort with class participation; 3) self-rated importance of academics; and 4) the number of HBS social events attended per week (see Table A).


These results substantiate some theories regarding the reason for the gender achievement gap and refute others.

Theory 1: Women have weaker pre-HBS characteristics and are more likely to come from less analytical backgrounds; hence, the difference in grades (partially substantiated)

Our results show women are significantly more likely than men to have come from a “traditional” pre-HBS industry (consulting or finance) and have slightly higher undergraduate GPAs than men. Men, on the other hand, are significantly more likely to have technical or business undergraduate degrees and have slightly higher GMAT scores. Overall, pre-HBS characteristics are a key driver of academic success, but on most dimensions men and women have similar backgrounds.

Theory 2: Women underperform at HBS because they are uncomfortable speaking in class (substantiated)

In our survey women reported significantly less comfort with class participation than men did. Qualitative comments suggest that some women may feel less comfortable participating due to their perceived difference in academic and professional backgrounds from their male peers.  Additionally, women often struggle to balance social and professional relationships; many women admit to self-editing in the classroom to manage their out-of-classroom image.

Theory 3: Women care less about academics than men do (unsubstantiated)

Our analysis shows that women place more importance on academics than men and spend significantly more time preparing for class.

Theory 4: Negative section dynamics hinder women’s academic performance (unsubstantiated)

Our survey results show that an individual’s perception of his/her section’s social dynamics (in terms of supportiveness of sectionmates, strength of section officers, cohesiveness of section, etc.) does not have a significant effect on academic performance of male or female students.

WHY #2: Why do men have a more positive experience at HBS than women?

Academic experience, unlike academic performance, is affected by section dynamics, at least for women (see Table A).  Our findings suggest that section dynamics impact women’s, but not men’s, satisfaction with the academic experience. Therefore, one of the keys to improving the academic experience for women will be creating a section environment that is supportive of all students.

WHY #3: Why does it happen at HBS?

Actually, HBS is not alone in observing a historical achievement gap between men and women. A comparison across eight peer business schools reveals that despite differences in student composition and pedagogy, a similarly marked academic gender gap exists across other schools, such that proportionally more men than women receive academic honors. However, there is little to no awareness of the issue at other schools, especially among students. Women’s groups at other schools tend to focus almost exclusively on career oriented efforts or increasing the percentage of women in the student body. As a top business school with the most robust dialogue around the gender achievement gap, HBS has the opportunity to be the leader in raising awareness of the problem and work to close the gap in business schools nationwide.

Where does HBS go from here?

Undoubtedly, HBS is on the right track. Academic achievement of women (at least in the last year) has improved. We believe this was likely driven by increased awareness of the problem by both students and faculty. In September, Dean Nohria identified inclusion as one of his priorities, and the administration has furthered the initiative through faculty training by the Christiansen Center on issues of gender and the establishment of the Culture and Community Initiative led by Professor Robin Ely.

That being said, we are far from finished asking the famous Toyota “5 whys.” Females have a noticeably less positive academic experience and section dynamics appear to contribute substantially to this disparity.  Through greater analysis and monitoring of academic performance and experience, collaboration with peer schools, ongoing student-initiated field studies, and experimentation with HBS’s longstanding academic and social structures, HBS students, faculty and administrators must work together to take this forward and ask the next “why.”

Note: Additional information regarding the field study findings can be obtained by emailing the authors. Students can also contact the authors to learn more about a field study next year aimed at understanding the nature of the problem across business schools and building a cross-school alliance of Women Student Associations.

There is likely survey sample bias with overrepresentation of high performing women (39% of respondents reporting 4 or more 1s were women as compared to the 30% of first year honors recipients).



  1. Congratulations to Monica, Andrea, Megan, Ruchi and Kat on this great article!

Comments are closed.