Conference Challenges Gender Conventions

A recent conference at Harvard Business School addressed the on-the-ground reality of women leaders 50 years after the first women were admitted to the two-year MBA Program at Harvard.
by Maggie Starvish

A recent conference at Harvard Business School addressed the on-the-ground reality of women leaders 50 years after the first women were admitted to the School's two-year MBA Program. And the reality is that women leaders are stuck—for example, women make up less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.

Held on the HBS campus in late February, the conference on "Gender and Work: Challenging Conventional Wisdom" brought together scholars and practitioners for a thoughtful, forward-looking discussion about gender in organizations. Chairing the conference were professors Robin Ely and Amy Cuddy.

"We've come a long way. Our current 900-plus first-year students are 40 percent women—our highest percentage ever," said Ely. "And our student body is far more diverse now than it was 50 years ago, not just in gender but in race, ethnicity, social class, nationality.

"But we still have a ways to go," added Ely, the Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration and senior associate dean for Culture and Community.

The conference, held from February 27 to March 1, is one of a series of "Women@50" events that have been held this year to commemorate the HBS milestone. Beyond moving the overarching topic of women and leadership, speakers examined the role academic research plays and how that research can be used for what Ely termed "a lever for change."

“Better lives come through a redesign of work…including management buy-in”

A series of 20-minute presentations followed by discussion groups took an unconventional look at topics such as stereotypes, difference, and organizational change. (Presenters were also asked to write short research-based papers to accompany their talks, which will be distributed at a later date.)

The conference featured a practitioner panel of executives who have roles in promoting women. HBS Dean Nitin Nohria and keynote speaker Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter also shared their thoughts with participants. Associate Professor and Hellman Faculty Fellow Amy Cuddy served as conference cochair.

Cuddy, Robert Livingston (Northwestern), and Peter Glick (Lawrence University) spoke on the subject "Backlash and the Double Bind." One anecdote from Cuddy's presentation on the ways race and employment status affect how society judges mothers, resonated with many participants. Cuddy related that when she moved to Chicago for a job at Northwestern, the fact that she was the only working mother in her neighborhood led her and her four-year-old son to be stigmatized.

Race And Gender

Cuddy went on to describe ways in which the rules of mothering are different for black versus white women. White stay-at-home mothers are idealized, while black stay-at-home mothers are stereotyped as lazy welfare exploiters, because unlike white mothers, society expects black mothers to work. In one experiment Cuddy described, participants were asked to rank how hardworking each woman in a group of black and white mothers were, who either worked full-time or stayed at home. The white stay-at-home mother was seen as the most hardworking, while the black stay-at-home mother was seen as the least hardworking.

Livingston then presented findings on how race affects societal perceptions of working women. His talk focused on its implications for women in leadership roles, and examined why there aren't more black women leaders, since research has shown that unlike white women, black women aren't penalized for dominant behavior. One reason he cited: black women are allowed to be dominant when it comes to getting things done, but not when it comes to getting ahead-they are not, in other words, allowed to be power-seeking, he said.

This article is part of a continuing series on faculty research and teaching commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first women to enter Harvard Business School's two-year MBA program.

Glick's presentation focused on benevolent sexism. Unlike hostile sexism, which is an overt response to a perceived threat to male power, Glick said that benevolent sexism's reinforcement of the male-as-caretaker stereotype "undermines with niceness." It "reinforces sexism's darker side [and] it is an attractive way to justify inequality" because men get to see themselves as a provider, not as an oppressor. Meanwhile, women get praise and attention in the workplace—but without the corresponding pay increases men receive.

Other speakers gave talks on difference, stereotypes, organizational change, and work/family.

In her presentation on difference, Dartmouth's Ella Bell stressed the importance of multicultural gender studies.

"It's not just about white women," she said, adding that class differences are important factors as well. Bell also spoke about how glass ceilings don't apply to black women—when they look up, they see a concrete wall. And she argued for another conference on changing academic roles, to combat what she sees as fear among more junior professors to publish controversial research before they have tenure.

At The Negotiation Table

In their presentation, Hannah Riley Bowles (HBS DBA'01) of the Harvard Kennedy School and Laura Kray of UC Berkeley spoke about a "negotiation scorecard"—a high-level view of the current state of negotiation research. According to Kray and Bowles, the social interactions behind workplace negotiation and the way academics study negotiation are overwhelmingly masculine. But despite evidence that the game is rigged against them, women still believe they'd be better negotiators if they only tried harder.

Scholars from Penn State, Yale, and the University of British Columbia contributed to the "Stereotypes" session. Theresa Vescio and Julia Dahl's talk, "Sugar-Coated Discrimination: How Subtle Sexism Undermines Women," focused on men's sexual objectification of women as a response to masculinity threats and how sexual objectification harms women, echoing Peter Glick's remarks on benevolent sexism as well as Amy Cuddy's on the stereotypical view of women as warm but incompetent.

During the "Organizational Change" session, MIT Sloan School professor Katherine Kellogg (HBS MBA'92) argued against the standard practice of bringing together status-quo defenders and supporters when implementing change in the workplace. Instead, supporters must be allowed what Kellogg calls "relational spaces"—places to discuss issues and concerns they may not feel comfortable talking about when defenders are present.

HBS's Leslie Perlow, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, spoke on the blurring of work/life boundaries faced by both genders, and explained that counteractive measures like flextime and job sharing are underutilized because workers fear being seen as less committed. "Better lives come through a redesign of work," and that redesign must include management buy-in, Perlow said. William Bielby, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, ended the session, discussing the need for more complex and varied solutions to workplace gender bias problems.

A 'woman's Problem'

The "Work/Family" session included presentations by Shelley Correll (Stanford University), Pamela Stone (CUNY), and Irene Padavic (Florida State University) and conference cochair Robin Ely. Padavic and Ely discussed why work/family initiatives have failed to advance women executives, using the example of a consulting firm that wanted to improve promotion rates of women but then resisted, looking beyond gender as an explanation for women's underrepresentation at the top.

Part of the difficulty, according to Ely and Padavic, is that while work/family issues affected both men and women in the firm, and both sexes complained of intense time and productivity pressures, these issues were seen as a barrier only for women, defined as "work/family conflict." Meanwhile, measures taken to combat work/family issues pushed women off the partner track and out the door.

A three-person panel of practitioners responsible for the advancement of women in their professional service firms discussed what they saw happening in their day-to-day roles as promoters of women within their organizations.

PricewaterhouseCoopers' Jennifer Allyn said her main challenge is retaining and advancing women to partner, explaining that women often leave client service to work in industry where they experience better work/life quality but limit their ultimate career progression. Her team focuses on creating policies to influence the costs and benefits of those trade-offs.

“I believe people don't want to change, and sometimes you have to change them whether they like it or not”

Joanna Barsh (HBS MBA '81) of McKinsey said she favors legal solutions to the female leadership problem: "I believe people don't want to change, and sometimes you have to change them whether they like it or not." McKinsey shook things up with a new policy that allowed the election of part-time employees to senior partner; a single father from Europe was the first to benefit. Although Deloitte's Cathy Benko (HBS MBA '89) said that she has had to teach salesmen that women clients aren't necessarily "into golf, beer, or the Yankees," she sees workplace issues as more structural than gender-based. "Women in corporations are canaries in a coal mine," she said, pointing to a steep decline in traditional families that she believes will affect their male peers in corporations further down the road.

In her keynote speech, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration at HBS, explained the opportunities behind societal changes such as a decline in traditional families, and stressed the importance of understanding the reasons behind the changes. She urged researchers to "look at the story over time, make it dynamic and interactive," and to consider interesting findings as jumping-off points rather than end points. "Part of my lifelong quest has been to make things more complex rather than simple," she said.

After the wrap-up session, Lawrence University's Peter Glick said that he appreciated the high quality of the presentations and the fact that the conference brought together people who don't normally cross paths. "The conference was clearly painstakingly designed not simply to throw invitees from different 'tribes' together but to create small groups…where we had repeated opportunities to discuss the issues raised in each panel." Those opportunities sparked new ideas that Glick said will influence his future work.

"Although many of the scholars in the room knew of and cite each other's work, we have had few opportunities to come together for sustained, intensive discussion of the problems we're passionate about," said Robin Ely, following the meeting. "I felt like a kid in a candy store: no matter where I turned, I saw brilliant, thoughtful people with whom to exchange ideas.

"I think we made it clear," she continued, "that HBS is a place where gender is taken seriously and where we have an opportunity—through our convening power and the investments we are willing to make as an institution—to move the needle on this problem."

About the Author

Maggie Starvish is a writer based in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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    • Joe Steele
    • Inclusion & Diveristy Consultant, Steele Consulting
    Great article. I appreciated the inclusion of racial influences along with the costs to men in not dealing with on-going sexism in the workplace
    • Tiffany Kemp
    • Director, Devant Limited
    A great summary for those of us who weren't able to be there. Young women aspiring to professional careers in the UK are mystified at talk of a 'glass ceiling', having consistently outperformed their male peers throughout their education. Sadly, the research shows that it is still very much in evidence, and that parenthood impacts the career progression of a woman far more than it does that of her male partner.

    Thanks to HBS for continuing to push our thoughts and actions on this essential topic!
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    A good initiative to understand what women face in and outside the workplace. One good thing is that the entry of women in HBS has improved to forty percent. Thus there will be sizable number of qualified women professionals in days to come. That sends green signals as most them will occupy positions in various companies,etc., and the gender imbalance will, of course to a very little extent though, reduce.
    If the HBS example gets replicated elsewhere too, things are bound to improve further.
    • Marie
    • VP - Consulting
    I'm frustrated by this issue and encouraged that there is ongoing dialogue/exposure to it. I truely hope my daughter (now almost 7) won't feel or percieve the same constraints we do today, over a century after the Iron Jawed Angels fought for women's right to vote. Encouraged and Frustrated. Wondering what else I can do.