01 Dec 2012
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50 Years & Counting

Women, Work, and HBS

HBS faculty are researching executive-suite challenges faced by women, to hasten the day when such gender-based inquiry is unnecessary.
by Kathleen McGinn

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The Power of Women

Kathleen McGinn was first drawn to the study of gender and work by her curiosity about men and women as negotiators. "In general, people believe there are gendered differences in the way men and women operate in workplace settings," says McGinn, the Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration and chair of HBS Doctoral Programs. "But when we study behavior in laboratory settings, the evidence often doesn't support those assumptions."

To get a better sense of if and how gender affects negotiations in the workplace, in 2005 McGinn and colleagues Hannah Riley Bowles (DBA 2001) and Dina Pradel (MBA 2000) conducted field research that showed that, absent context, gender itself is not a good predictor of negotiation performance. Gender differences appear when guidelines for negotiation are ambiguous and environmental triggers are present—such as the number of women in leadership positions—that suggest that gender may indeed matter. Notes McGinn, "Understanding gender triggers can make it easier for women to neutralize inequities."

That study drew her to consider other common assumptions about women at work, prompting an array of new research initiatives. Recently, McGinn has taken a nuanced look at evidence that women in professional service organizations are more likely to be promoted when the firm's leadership includes significant numbers of women. Her analysis of five years of personnel data from a major law firm, published this fall in Organization Science, suggests that women's upward progress depends on the proportion of senior women within the immediate work group and on the extent to which senior-level women enjoy the same power and status as their male counterparts. "That's where the shift needs to happen," comments McGinn. "When men and women across the firm internalize a definition of competence and power that includes women, that makes a difference in retention and advancement."

A longitudinal study of the consulting firm Deloitte LLP delves into the broader question of how approaches to gender and work in professional organizations evolve over time. With HBS assistant professor Lakshmi Ramarajan and Deborah Kolb from the Simmons School of Management, McGinn is looking at two decades of archival information on activities and beliefs at Deloitte, known for its initiatives supportive of women's careers. A comparison of company data and gender representations in the business press shows that the firm's approach to recruiting and retaining women more or less coincided with reported shifts in national attitudes toward women and work. "As an organization, Deloitte reshaped its beliefs to adapt to demographic changes in its workforce and shifts in the broader social narrative," she observes. "This type of study adds to our understanding of how organizational and societal practices work together."

McGinn notes that over the past few decades attitudes toward women and work have been shifting dramatically in the developing world as well. With HBS associate professor Mukti Khaire and doctoral student Alexandra Feldberg, McGinn is looking at a 30-year period of change in India driven, in part, by self-employed women entering into the country's market economy.

"But the power of women's work isn't just manifested in individual women," McGinn stresses. "It's evident in family and community dynamics and local and national economics. We can see how change happens woman by woman, family by family, and community by community. It's a fascinating time to be involved in this field of research." —DB

Freed from the Bias Trap Max Bazerman

In a research project conducted with colleagues at the Harvard Kennedy School, HBS professor and ethicist Max Bazerman has found that gender bias in hiring or promotion is less likely to occur if candidates are compared to one another, rather than evaluated solely as individuals. "The project interested me because it taps into earlier work I've done on how joint evaluation leads to better and more ethical decisions," says Bazerman, the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration and a member of the School's Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit. "With my coauthors, HKS's Iris Bohnet and Alexandra van Geen, the working paper we produced "When Performance Trumps Gender Bias: Joint versus Separate Evaluation" also shows how research can benefit from cross-University collaboration."

While Bazerman thinks that overt bias against individuals or groups is less of a problem than it was a couple of decades ago, "that does not mean we've solved problems of inequality." "Someone could have absolutely no hostility at all but have implicit unconscious beliefs about others that lead them to act with bias," he says. "Bias without hostility can still result in discrimination." As Iris Bohnet has noted, it may be as simple as the fact that as long as women aren't seen in leadership positions, we don't think of—and thus are less likely to hire—women as leaders. Bazerman and his colleagues believe this implicit form of bias is still prevalent among managers and executives. And because people aren't even aware they're engaging in these behaviors, the phenomenon may be harder to challenge than overt hostility.

As Bazerman observes, there is an ethical dimension to this as well. "If managerial and executive decision-makers are acting with bias, but without their own awareness, they're engaging in unethical behaviors," he says. "I would not call such people 'unethical,' because that implies intentionality. However, if an executive is aware and doesn't intervene to make changes in the organization, then we could say this failure to take corrective actions is unethical."

For this HKS/HBS study involving some 654 male and female college students, Bazerman explains, "In studying social comparison processes, we found that in joint evaluations, people are much more deliberative in their thinking. If you give people a choice between two or more individuals, then they tend to use the performance-based evidence available to them and hire the most qualified employee. If, however, you consider people one at a time in a sequential way—one individual, then another, and so on—you dramatically increase the likelihood that you're going to end up with discriminatory hiring practices. You're more likely to let your biases take over and to use stereotypes rather than valid predictors of performance."

The findings of Bohnet, van Geen, and Bazerman are important because joint evaluation leads to fairer outcomes, decreases the role of stereotypes, and boosts the bottom line by elevating the impact of performance-based merit in hiring decisions. Bohnet, who has incorporated the study's results into her administrative decision-making as academic dean of the Kennedy School, says that firms from the financial services, pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications industries have expressed interest as well.

Adds Bazerman, a prolific scholar, "This is one of the most exciting papers I have ever worked on." —GE

Women and the Entrepreneurial Mind-set Janet Kraus

HBS senior lecturer Janet Kraus doesn't much like the phrase "having it all," with its implications of a collective definition of "success" and of universal goals for all women. Instead, Kraus says much of her academic focus—informed by her study of entrepreneurship, career planning, and the juggling of work/family priorities—is on helping women develop and commit to a personal vision of success.

"It's the entrepreneur's mind-set applied to life planning," explains Kraus, a Stanford MBA, former consultant with Temple, Barker & Sloane, serial entrepreneur, wife, and mother of five-year-old twins. "Entrepreneurs relentlessly pursue business opportunities without regard to whether they control all the resources required from the outset. In the same way, I believe, women are starting to pursue their own vision of success, even as they understand that throughout their careers they will encounter unexpected challenges and opportunities beyond their control."

Kraus's HBS teaching puts her in contact with women at a variety of career stages. In the second-year MBA elective Building Business in the Context of a Life, she works with women (and men) in their late 20s "for whom the 'future' is their first job." The course challenges students to look further ahead and contemplate life issues such as long-distance relationships, health problems, parenthood, and financial setbacks through the lens of their own core values. "I want them to think about the ways in which their lives could unfold so they can make the most of their potential and be prepared for setbacks," she explains. "You could think of it as trying to teach young MBAs how to avoid a midlife crisis."

In the Executive Education curriculum, Kraus works with participants in their 40s and 50s who are immersed in midlife transitions. She teaches both A New Path: Setting New Professional Directions, which is exclusively for women, and Crossroads: Discovering the Path Ahead, which is open to women and men who are alumni of the OPM Program. In A New Path, Kraus says competence and confidence are typical concerns. "These women may need a check-in on their marketing or finance skills if they're reentering the workforce, or validation and help with changing course if they've been in the same field for a while."

Crossroads is a program for company presidents/owners contemplating career or life changes. In family dynamics—which women weigh heavily in career decisions—the ripple effect of a business owner's transition can bring particular complications. Nevertheless, Kraus believes "the entrepreneurial path is a great place for women to make career rules the way they see them."

To help young Harvard women get started on entrepreneurial paths, Kraus, a former Entrepreneur-in-Residence at HBS, facilitates the Women's Founders Forum, a cohort of students from across the University who are at various stages of developing or launching businesses. During biweekly discussions at the Harvard Innovation Lab, topics run the gamut from attracting angel investors, to recruiting a team without funds, to how to respond if you've started a company in Chicago and your fiancé gets transferred to South Carolina.

"Having an established network of women peers when you launch your own business is an extraordinary resource," Kraus stresses. "One of my goals is to help create a sisterhood of women who will go out there and kick butt as entrepreneurs. Harvard is a great place to start that." —DB

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