Gender Discrepancies in Academic Performance

Students, in partnership with faculty and administration, are continuing to focus on improving female academic performance at HBS.

Are men and women equal at HBS? It’s a question that has been front of mind at HBS in recent weeks. In a recent staff meeting, HBS professors as a group discussed ongoing discrepancies in male and female student performance for the first time in history. Last month, a Crimson article addressed the lack of tenured female professors on the HBS campus. Meanwhile, across the business school, numerous EC independent student research (ISR) projects, field studies and class projects are touching on issues of gender, academics and career.

One of these many efforts is a field study that focuses on analyzing and addressing the current differences between the male and female academic experience at HBS. As The Harbus published in a Fall article, “WSA Academic Initiative Survey,” there is a marked discrepancy between male and female academic performance: though comprising 38% of the Class of 2010 student body, female students make up only 23% of first year honors recipients and an estimated 55% of the students asked to take leave from HBS after the RC year in 2009. Females in past years with similar class compositions have comprised 11-14% of Baker Scholars.

This semester, a group of ECs partnered with faculty and HBS administration to understand some of the root causes driving these trends. The study was completed through three workstreams. First, a series of focus groups was conducted with a variety of students – men and women, honors recipients, sectionmates and non-sectionmantes – to try to identify root causes of grading inequities and generate a catalog of academic best practices that could be helpful to future students. Second, interviews with faculty explored academic root causes of underperformance from the faculty’s perspective and identified potential areas for improvement. Finally, all these efforts coincided with a data-focused workstream that included analysis of publicly available honors, class card and other information to understand if certain factors such as relationship status, age or work background play a part in determining male and female performance.

Preliminary findings on root causes have been grouped into five areas to be examined in another field study this fall.

Comment Frequency and Delivery
Survey and focus group results, along with faculty feedback, confirmed previous findings that women feel less comfortable speaking in class. Women also speak less frequently and with less confidence. Most notably, they are less willing to potentially offend or challenge classmates than their male peers are.

Section Dynamics
Some sections reported better female performance (i.e. many more female honors recipients, fewer females asked to take leave) than others, suggesting that the social and academic tone of a given section could impact men and women differently. Data analysis also showed that a much higher percentage of female honors students than average are married, suggesting further underlying social dynamics at work. Given this information, directed focus groups attempted to illuminate the role of social dynamics in predicting performance across genders. It seemed clear from focus groups that students take into account their social relationships with section peers when deciding whether to speak and what to say. Furthermore, focus group feedback indicated that dramatic in-class bonding experiences, Skydecks that avoided personal attacks, and engaged officers (leadership & values representatives, education representatives and presidents) all played a role in setting the tone for a positive learning environment for both men and women.

Potential Unconscious Faculty Biases
There is a body of research that shows that male and female comments are unconsciously processed differently. Focus group and Fall survey data further suggest that people perceive that women are raising their hands less and consequently getting called on less than men. Professor interviews exposed a wide range of faculty opinions on this unconscious bias issue; some professors care deeply about performance of different minorities and actively manage calling patterns and in-class interactions, while other professors feel they do not have any biases to manage. Faculty, for the most part, admitted that unconscious biases may exist and in turn asked for help in identifying these biases.

Admissions Differences:
Focus group feedback showed some students thought differences in grades might be explained by differences between men’s and women’s backgrounds and admissions profiles. Admissions data cannot be used for purposes other than admissions, but preliminary analysis using the classcards and honors list statistics of four representative sections yielded some interesting results. People with backgrounds in consulting and/or finance made up 84% of the honors list. In the four sections studied, women were actually more likely than men (70% women versus 60% men) to come from these finance or consulting backgrounds. On the flip side, first year honors recipients from the sections studied had a little more work experience than average while women across the four sections on average had fewer years’ work experience than men. Follow-up research in the fall will look into this issue further.

Lack of Female Role Models
Fall survey and focus group data highlighted female discomfort with the current lack of female professors and case protagonists. Psychology research supports the notion that women could be at a disadvantage from not seeing more female role models at HBS.

Summary of Findings and Next Steps
While HBS is still a long way from achieving grading parity, much has been accomplished through this field study and other ongoing efforts around this issue. Detailed analysis of grade and classroom data is helping the administration to better understand what factors contribute to performance. This May, HBS professors will have the opportunity to attend one of two sessions with Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji to understand how implicit biases affect how males and females are perceived differently in class settings. Efforts are underway to have next year’s RCs see a case that directly addresses gender dynamics in the workplace. In addition, extra sessions on class participation with Professor Frances Frei will be opened up to all students. Future students will receive a Survival Guide with updated information on difference between male and female academic performance. In addition, a series of recommendations ranging from opening analytics to all students to sharing EC exam grades and more detailed mid-semester RC participation feedback has been presented to the HBS administration.

Finally, a large part of this effort has been focused on keeping a dialogue open on issues surrounding female academic performance. An important study (Shih, Pittinsky & Ambady, Psychological Science, 1999) showed that Asian women performed better on math exams when their ethnic identities were activated than when their gender identities were activated by a series of questions at the start of the test. There was an internal implicit bias that made these women do worse when they self-identified as women than when they self-identified as Asian. A second study (Kray, Thompson & Galinsky, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 2001) showed that when this tendency to underperform was made explicitly known to test-takers in advance, the effect completely disappeared. One of the most important goals of the ongoing Women’s Initiative is to make explicit the underlying factors that can lead to grade disparity at HBS so that women can knowingly work to overcome them.

While there is some question as to whether or not HBS prepares women best for the “real world” by mirroring existing social conditions or by implementing changes to be “better” than the norm, the administration tends to come down on the side that says HBS should be a leader in the business community that sets, rather than follows, the larger social tone. The question for the HBS administration seems to be not whether to do anything, but what can be done to best ensure equality in grading. In the meantime, student movements like the Women’s Initiative will seek to help women understand the existing issues and try to give all students better tools to succeed both at HBS and in the workplace.

This important work will continue next semester with research, dialogue with administration and students and tangible actions (workshops, curriculum changes) to improve the situation. If you would like to be involved in the continued research, please contact any of the authors of this article.

Akmaral, Alex, Julia, Julie, Jung and Paayal are EC students who love HBS and care deeply about making it a more supportive environment for all students.