Is Dean Clark Insensitive to Women's Issues at HBS or Were We Too Quick to Judge?

The November 21 issue of Business Week Online quoted Dean Kim Clark as saying that he would be “pleased to see more of our women choosing to raise families” and that an HBS education could be helpful for women when they do “things related to their children” such as “leading a school or community council.” The HBS community reacted with outrage to comments which appeared dated at best and blatantly sexist at worst. To clear the air and allow students to raise questions, Dean Clark agreed to address the issues in an open forum in Spangler Auditorium on December 13.

The discussion began with the Dean asserting that he was misquoted in the article. “This is a lesson in dealing with the press,” he began. Making the point that writers tend to look for angles and put in quotes which support them, Dean Clark told the group that his comments were misapplied, cut short and taken out of context to fit the mold of the story this reporter was trying to tell, a story about how more and more women are choosing to stay home with their children.

The Dean went on to describe his account of what actually happened in the interview. He mentioned three specific discussion areas which he felt were inappropriately represented in the article.

1. Balance issues are issues for both men and women. Although he discussed this point in the interview, the Dean felt this nuance was left out of the article since the article’s focus was on women leaving the workforce. He did stress, however, that his own view and the view of the administration is that balance is a challenge faced by all HBS students and graduates, regardless of gender.

2. While obviously not the only choice, the choice to focus on family at certain points in one’s life is great, and HBS is supportive of that choice. As much as many of us would like to be Meg Whitmans with incredible jobs, supportive husbands, well adjusted children, extensive community involvement, and plenty of time to spend with our friends, it doesn’t work out this way for everyone. All of us face choices, and the numbers indicate many of us will take time off from our jobs at certain points to invest in our families. According to the Dean, surveys of recent graduates have indicated that dropping out of the workforce leaves them feeling isolated from the HBS community. Dean Clark wants the school to do a better job of helping people who make this choice continue to feel part of the HBS community and letting them know HBS will help them get back in the workforce when they’re ready.

3. Given HBS’s role as a public thought leader, we have an obligation to actively shape public debate and influence the way companies think about work/life balance issues. The Dean mentioned ongoing research conducted by Myra Hart and others at the school which explores work/life balance issues faced by both men and women and how companies can do a better job of working around these issues to ensure they don’t lose out on a valuable pool of workers.

The debate was followed by questions from students ranging from whether they could see the actual working notes from the interview to what the Dean plans to do to correct the internal and external damage caused by this article. While somewhat vague as to timing, the Dean said he is writing an article for a major publication expressing his views and those of the administration in his own words.

What I have found most striking about this latest HBS controversy is our willingness to condemn HBS and particularly our Dean over this article. It is highly likely that as leaders of the business community, many of us will find ourselves misquoted in the media at least once. Some will even have the misfortune of being portrayed as sexist, racist, corrupt, or worse by a reporter looking for a story angle.

As this relates to Dean Clark, if he tells us he has been misquoted, that’s good enough for me (for now). The proof, of course, will be in the pudding as he continues communicating his views to the media which I’m sure we will all watch for eagerly. In the meantime, however, I would advocate that we take his assertion that he was simply misquoted at face value and not walk away with our confidence in the administration or this institution shaken.

As this relates to us as members of the HBS community, I hope we will take away from this experience that any one of us could also be misquoted, maligned and otherwise abused by the press. It is only a matter of time before this happens. I hope that the HBS community will show itself to be a network of support rather than a firing squad when that time comes. We have an obligation to give our faculty, administration, and peers the benefit of the presumption of innocence until they’re proven guilty. That’s what the HBS “community” is all about. After all, if we don’t have each other’s backs, who will?