October 29th, 2013 | 6:00 am

Will Harvard’s gender equity experiment change how leaders manage in the future?

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By Pragati Verma
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Having educated
25 of the current Fortune 500 CEOs, Harvard Business School (HBS) is a breeding ground for successful business leaders, albeit it’s so far, male alumni. Will the deep structural effort to create more gender parity at its campus, which is certainly commendable and brave, actually change how work gets done in the corporations that these students may eventually lead?

The New York Times article exploring this issue raises a very important question — “Are we trying to change the world 900 students at a time, or are we preparing students for the world in which they are about to go?” Will gender parity experiments in business schools like HBS change the balance, or rather lack of it, in every day work environments and consequently, will we see more women progress into leadership roles?

To understand the impact of HBS’s gender experiment in creating future female leaders, we obviously require time to measure the results and even then, it would be almost impossible to attribute success solely to HBS’s experiment.

Hopefully, this initiative will create a bigger pipeline of enlightened leaders of both genders. Assuming we do see more female leaders, will these new leaders do anything differently or are we going to see more of the same management style we have seen in the past?

Will Women change how work is done?

According to research conducted by David Matsa, assistant professor of finance at the Kellogg School of Management and Amalia Miller, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, female leaders may show traits that differ from male leaders, but not necessarily because of innate gender differences.

Instead of assessing the gender differences in corporate leadership on a granular level, Matsa and Miller chose to gather information on a grander scale by observing the performance of publicly listed Norwegian companies after the board quota legislation was passed in 2006, which required companies to ensure that women made up 40 percent of the board of directors within two years of the quota being adopted.

Interestingly enough, Matsa and Miller found that among the companies affected by the board quotas, there was no significant difference in the companies’ financial performance correlating with an increase in female leaders. What they did find, however, was that companies affected by the board quota retained more employees than companies not affected, resulting in higher labor costs.

According to Matsa and Miller, it is difficult to tell whether or not this means that women leaders value the relationships with their employees and their employees’ needs more than men, or if it simply reflects a gender difference in the approach toward long term business strategy. Even though the results of this one piece of research do not provide conclusive evidence that women lead differently than men, it provides some insight into the possibility that gender can influence business strategy.

However, from a pure observational viewpoint of female CEOs in the past decade, women leaders at big corporate houses seem no different from their male counterparts.

Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, for instance, took the heat for forcing work-from-home employees to join their colleagues in the office instead. Neither one of these top female leaders is showing any signs of redefining corporate principles that currently define workplace practices.

Susan Chipman, in a recent HBS discussion where James Heskett, Baker Foundation Professor, Emeritus at HBS asks, “How important is leadership gender in influencing the way We work?” provides some interesting food for thought on why the women who are making it to the top are seemingly keen to not make radical changes to how work is done

Chipman offers, “It is extremely naive to expect that stereotypical ideas about what women in general are like will have any meaning for the behavior of women in senior management positions. Women who arrive in such positions will be very atypical.”

Heskett himself opines that this could be the case and mentions how HBS alumni Sheryl Sandberg in her book does not suggest systemic change but “largely assumes that work will not be rethought. Instead, women will have to ‘lean in’ and face the long hours and judgments regarding the quantity of work as well as the quality of work they are able to do.”

Harvard professor Robin J Ely and Stanford professor Debra E Meyerson give some insight into why this reluctance to change the way we work could be occurring among business leaders.

They stated in an interview with Mallory Stark for the HBS newsletter, Working Knowledge: The Thinking That Leads, “The notion that the basic organizing principles that govern workplace practice, including many of the implicit rules for success, are closely aligned with idealized masculine interests, attributes, and life situations is a hard sell, especially to those who have become successful within this system—whether men or women, rich or poor, white or minority.”

Ely and Meyerson point out that the people who have successfully made a career in the current system could be resistant to changing it and are yet expected to be “influential change agents in the workplace” since they hold powerful positions. “Most people in organizations, including women, do not view their work practices—how work is defined and how work gets done—as having anything to do with race or gender. It’s just the way things are, like water to a fish or the air we breathe. What’s to notice? What’s to change?” they add.

What will the future hold?

Arguments that suggest that a critical mass of women in C- level positions alone will create cultural change are not true if the women themselves cannot acknowledge the inequity of the system that empowered them.

With that said, it is not mutually exclusive to lack progress and change while increasing the number of women in charge. Just don’t expect people because of their gender to automatically induce organizational change.

Behaviors from some female leaders may continue to resemble those of their male predecessors but at the very least, critical mass may reduce the stereotype of CEO’s being automatically male, white, and interestingly enough, taller than the average man.

2 comments

  1. Monica

    This is a very interesting article, however if I understand the idea correctly we are saying women in leadership positions will not be true change agents as is the case with current female leaders, which are leading as their male counterparts. I think what is more interesting and important is the fact that we have a talent pool of women, and unfortunately they are not represented in these leadership roles, not enough of them. I feel this is what much of the research on this subject points to. Also, even when we look at only male leaders they will each have their strengths and talent, and this is the same with female leaders. Great article, interesting angle on this subject.

  2. Vicki Donlan

    Although women currently in leadership positions in corporate America are not leading change does not mean that the future of corporate America will not require it. The more women assume leadership roles the more family values will naturally become ingrained in the workplace. Changes have already occurred for men due to the number of women at work — consider paternity leave and more opportunities to work from home. These benefit men today more than the women they were supposedly altered for. Women-owned companies are a clear view of how work can succeed while not destroying families. The future is finding value in family values and encouraging both men and women to thrive in a workplace that cares about its workforce.