HBS Class Explores Lack of Women on Corporate Boards

Photograph by Getty Images

A new class at Harvard Business School aims to fix the lack of women serving on corporate boards. Professor Boris Groysberg spent five years polling directors about the best ways to increase female board representation and wrote a series of case studies that explores female executive leadership through the eyes of individuals, at the corporate level and the policy level.

Sample cases hold up policies such as those in Norway and Iceland (enforcing quotas) vs. Sweden’s (providing governmental incentives) so that students can compare the effectiveness of each. Another looks at how one high-powered woman executed different career moves. Each student will also interview 12 executives about the experiences they’ve had related to female leadership or as managers making hiring decisions involving women.

When Groysberg introduced the class, a second-year elective for HBS MBA students, this semester he expected about 20 students to sign up. Fifty enrolled. Only three of them are men.

He spoke with Bloomberg Businessweek’s Erin Zlomek about the class, its objectives, and how he plans to get more male HBS students invested in the topic. Below are edited excerpts of their conversation.

What distinguishes your class from others on this issue?

Many courses look at the challenges women leaders face. I think that is important, but it doesn’t do anything to address what we do about it. We are trying to be prescriptive in this class and help students navigate around institutional barriers. It has taken an enormous amount of time to create material for the course. We did a number of research projects before we finally had something to say about X or Y.

What’s an example of one of those prescriptive measures?

Research shows that women are more successful than men when they take a job with a different company. It’s because high-powered women don’t take the organizations where they work for granted. Men do, because they are the majority. Most likely, women have faced some type of barrier at their companies. And when they look for a job at another company, they are a lot more strategic. Because of this, it takes women longer to find a new job. Men mostly look for more compensation. Women look for this, but they also look at the culture of a company and the makeup of the executive team. Women only want to join companies that have objective measures of performance, so they don’t have to play politics. We talk about what this may mean for our students and the companies that hire them.

Give another example.

People build relationships with people who are like them—men with men, Germans with Germans, Americans with Americans. For women to become successful, they have to build a lot more relationships outside their organizations. Those relationships could be with clients, sources, suppliers, and so on. This makes their franchise more portable. Again, we talk about what this means for our students and their eventual employers.

How do you plan to get more men to take the course?

A lot of what will drive men to sign up is repetition of the course and whether or not it actually creates value for the people in the room. I think if it does that this year, we will have a lot more men next year.

I’m approaching this through word of mouth. If the course winds up giving students a comparative edge and introduces them to things they otherwise wouldn’t get someplace else, I think that will [persuade] more people to sign up.

What inspired you to teach this class?

I feel connected to this topic because we [Jews] were a minority in the Soviet Union. [Groysberg was born in Belarus.] Many of the experiences I’ve heard women refer to, on many different levels, I have experienced myself, and so have my parents.

I also have four children and two are girls. I want to do my part so that when my girls are adults, they end up working for companies that are better than the companies women are experiencing right now.

Join the discussion on the Bloomberg Businessweek Business School Forum, visit us on Facebook, and follow @BWbschools on Twitter.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.