The controversial efforts of Harvard Business School to put female MBAs on equal footing with their male counterparts, as documented by the New York Times, have set the B-school world abuzz. But for Inspired HR, a human capital consultancy in Calgary, Canada, that helps companies struggling to get women into leadership positions, such social engineering is old hat. Debby Carreau, the company’s founder and chief executive, recently spoke to Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Francesca Di Meglio about gender equity in B-school and beyond. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
What role do business schools play in getting women into leadership positions in the corporate world?
We’re never going to get anywhere with people banging tables and saying, “We need more women.” What we need to do is get more capable women in the pipeline. To start, business schools must address things like women not raising their hand in class. Professors and other students must recognize their unintentional bias by, for example, calling on more women during discussion.
One of the things we know is important is a peer network. Women are overmentored and undersponsored. This really starts in high school. Women get mentors, but they don’t have friends who pipe up about them when a position becomes open. This hurts women when they could be getting to the C-suite. Men, on the other hand, support their friends more.
What do you think of Harvard’s approach to addressing the problem?
Increasing awareness was the best thing the school did. It trained women on raising their hands, for example. It was good to show the data on unintentional biases that were holding women back. Where they crossed the line was by trying to change the culture. For example, administrators tried to tell students what Halloween costumes to wear (to avoid anything too sexy or provocative). You can’t shove the culture down people’s throats. If you continue the education piece, the culture will come in time. It’s human nature. People just don’t want to be told what to do.
Is Harvard Business School the right institution to be taking on this issue?
The top school for both undergraduate and graduate degrees among Fortune 100 CEOs is Harvard. While undergraduate degrees are varied, the top graduate degree by a clear margin is an MBA at 57 percent. This reinforces the importance of both Harvard taking the lead on this issue and other schools following its lead. The majority of CEOs at the top levels have MBAs, and if we want to address the gender differential at the top, we need to start at business schools by eliminating unconscious bias, educating faculty and students on the business case for diversity, and supporting a system where both men and women can thrive.