Harvard's Gender Bender

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I am apparently the perfect person to commentate on Jodi Kantor 's piece in the New York Times about Harvard Business School's attempt to promote gender equality. I say this because any number of people have asked "Are you going to write about this?" or simply issued the second-person imperative: "You should write about this!" You see, I have an MBA from the University of Chicago. Also I have two X chromosomes.

As it happens, I have read the piece. And as it happens, I have a lot of thoughts about the piece. Some of it accorded with my own memories of school -- the alcohol-soaked social life, for example. Some of it was very far from my own recollection, in part, I think, because Chicago does not have the same attraction for international jet setters. I don't recall a huge class divide between the folks who were popping off to Gstaad for the weekend, and the folks who were staying home with a couple of beers. We'd all worked for an average of five years before going to school; we all had credit cards and generous student loans. Most of us traveled and had a perfectly good time -- too good, for those of us who ended up making $40,000 a year as journalists after graduation. But there was no obvious gap between mind-bogglingly rich and merely upper middle class.

My experience may have been atypical, however. I was a middle-class kid in a very wealthy private school in New York. I spent most of the years between college and business school doing technology work for banks, where traders and other guys thought nothing of making indecent proposals, or grabbing me, or setting up their desks so that they'd get an eyeful when I went to work on their computers. In my entire time as a technology consultant, I only worked with two other women. So Chicago, which at the time was 19 percent female, felt positively feminized. There were, of course, the jerks -- long after I graduated, a former classmate anonymously commented on one of my articles to the effect that I was gawky and had frizzy hair, which has exactly what to do with my opinions on the banking crisis? But I'm pretty sure I know the identity of the fellow who wrote that, and let's just say that he wasn't exactly at the center of campus social life.

Also, let's face it: I have never let worries about being perceived as unfeminine stop me from expressing an opinion. I can't claim any feminist cred for this, I'm afraid, because it's not a decision. It's just how I'm built. If I get interested in an idea, I start talking, and if I think someone's wrong, I'll tell them they're wrong. As I've gotten older, I've gotten more tactful about it, but the basic constitutional impulse to argue about ideas remains. So I never retired from a classroom argument in order to preserve my dateability.

I'm aware that women prioritize dating (and relationships in general) over career much more than men do. And the choices that they make about pursuing those things are made in the context of a culture, and maybe even an evolutionary background, that values female attractiveness and agreeableness more highly than female academic achievement or career success. That's less true than it used to be, of course -- a successful professional wants to marry another professional, not a secretary or nurse who's good with kids. But generally, a woman does not attract a man by demonstrating that she's smarter and funnier than he is -- and women tailored their activities accordingly when I was in school, just as they do today.

Then, as now, women were less likely to go into finance, and much more likely to go into marketing. Judging by my reunion, ones who went into finance mostly did not stay there, especially if they had kids. That was also true of a lot of women who went into consulting. A pretty substantial percentage of the women I went to school with were home with kids or working on small home businesses. And seemingly pretty happy with the choice. I mean, perhaps they won't be in 10 years, when the kids are well settled in school and they want to get back into work, but I have no particular reason to think they'll regret their choices any more than the rest of us regret having to make trade-offs with the limited span of years and opportunities we're allocated.

Running through Kantor's article is the implication that these are bad choices, ones that the women who made them will regret -- or at the very least, ones that will make it harder for other women to break into male bastions like finance. Because those who share that view are powerless to make men want to date women who are assertive and focused on schoolwork, instead they end up fighting the choices. At one point, Harvard forbid its students from wearing Halloween costumes to class, because it didn't want the women to dress up as sexy pirates. On the one hand, I understand that it's trying to send a message that business school should be about school, not finding a spouse.

On the other hand, this is both quixotic and ludicrous. If you put a bunch of people in their late 20s together in a small space for two years, they're going to spend a lot of their time looking for a spouse, because that's the age at which they're supposed to be finding one. And treating them like kindergarteners who can't be trusted to choose their own clothes just sends the message that fighting sexism is about being a humorless nanny. Judging from the comments from the male students, that is, in fact, exactly the message they picked up.

To be sure, Harvard administrators did also try to get involved in the social life. They mandated classroom discussions about gender and added a class for group work. But while Kantor says that they sparked free-flowing private discussion, that sounds to me like the sort of thing you tell an interviewer who has directly asked about effectiveness. Kantor seems hard-pressed to find male students, or even female students, who are very enthusiastic about the changes; mostly, she's relaying the impressions of the administrators and faculty who supported the program.

Those faculty are relying on the almost instant dramatic improvement in female grades -- so instant, in fact, that one suspects faculty members just started grading women on a separate curve. And to be fair, maybe that simply corrected for discrimination against the way women participated -- fewer spirited defenses of far-out theories, more concise statements of the unsurprising truth. Or maybe there's now a pink grading ghetto for ladies where they no longer have to practice being assertive, because they'll get a good grade anyway. There's no real way to tell which is the truth.

Overall, I'm less sanguine about these sorts of efforts than the folks running HBS seem to be. Not because I think that sexism is a done problem, mind you. Women do get penalized in all sorts of ways for being assertive, and in a system that rewards assertiveness, they start out with a big handicap. But I'm skeptical that Harvard really found a way to conquer this problem. At one point, Harvard sends everyone to mandatory discussions about sexual harassment, after a female student complains about getting groped in a bar. These sorts of sessions have been common since I was in college, and in my observation, they're next to useless; mostly, they give administrators and student coordinators the pleasant feeling of having "done something" about a problem. The students who are already politically engaged on the issue find them very invigorating, but everyone else finds them somewhere between tedious and bullying, because while we talk a lot about having a "conversation" about issues like sexism, it's not much of a conversation when one side risks offending powerful professors and administrators if it speaks frankly.

So what do you do about women who freely make choices that perpetuate structural inequalities? Do you stop them from making the choices? Neither Harvard, nor Kantor, seems to have a good answer. But that is the core dilemma. Maybe women drop out because they have a deeper biological connection to their kids. Maybe they do so because they're raised to be nurturers, or maybe because they don't feel the same personal anguish that a man does when he gives up on the dream of a top-flight career. Maybe if men felt they had the option to stay home, more would. And maybe women find the role of breadwinner more stressful than men do -- all the women I know who are the primary earners are neurotic about it in a way that the men I know don't seem to be. I'm not talking about the fear that your partner will resent your success; these are women married to admirably feminist men. I'm just talking about a near-constant fear that you will not be able to provide, and your family will end up horribly destitute. I'm not saying that men don't experience that worry, but they don't seem tormented by it the way the women I talk to are.

Or maybe it's that women just don't want it badly enough. In my experience, one of the reasons that women drop out of finance, and 80-hour-a-week fields more generally, is that they just don't want it as badly as the men. In their 20s, they're happy to work those kinds of hours, even at tasks they find boring. They do well at them, too. But a lot of these jobs aren't actually that rewarding as work: The investment banking associates I observed seemed to spend most of their time on basically clerical tasks, tabulating data and proofreading PowerPoints. And eventually most of the women seem to say "You know, I just care more about relationships than I do about success." There are always exceptions on both sides: women who will sacrifice anything for the career they feel called to and men who would rather be home. But on average, the women I talk to just aren't nearly as willing to sacrifice close friendships, and family relationships, for the sake of their jobs.

We can say that they shouldn't have to, of course, but the sad fact is that there are trade-offs in this world. In your 20s you can finesse them -- work super hard and also have a roaring social life -- because you have boundless energy and no one depending on you. This is the age at which young women write furious articles and Facebook posts denouncing anyone who suggests that women opt-out of high pressure jobs for any reason other than the rankest sexism.

As you age, your body refuses to cooperate with your plan to work from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and then hang out with friends. Your parents start to need you more, if only to lift heavy things. And of course, there are kids. You start having to make direct trade-offs, and then suddenly you look up and you haven't seen your friends for two years and your mother is complaining that you never call. This is the age at which women write furious articles defending their decision to step back from a high-pressure job and/or demanding subsidized childcare, generous paid maternity leave and "family friendly policies," a vague term that ultimately seems to mean that people who leave at five to pick up the kids should be entitled to the same opportunities and compensation as people who stay until 9 to finish the client presentation. These pleas usually end (or begin) by pointing to the family-friendly utopia of Northern Europe, except that women in Europe do less well at moving into high-test management positions. Whatever the government says, someone who takes several years off work is in fact less valuable to their company than someone who doesn't.

A little bit of Kantor's article consists of true, appalling sexism -- the venture capitalist who says women don't belong in his field; the guys who trade access to the best jobs among themselves. But most of it consists of women prioritizing relationships over career. It's true that this takes place within the context of a cultural legacy of sexism, along with the unfortunate biological reality that a man who wants kids can afford to wait longer than a woman can to find a life partner. But I'm afraid I don't see how Harvard is going to change either the cultural context or the choices. Nor am I sure that I want it to work on the women to care more about money and success.

If I had been a man, could I have brought myself to take an entry-level journalism job that paid a third of what I'd been expecting as a consultant? I sort of doubt it. Just because our choices are made in the context of sexist assumptions doesn't mean that our choices are wrong.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net