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Harvard Business School and the Problem of Social Capital

Will helping women get better grades in business school actually help them do better in the real world of business? That's the question I was left wondering at the end of this fascinating, thoroughly reported New York Times article by Jodi Kantor, on a concerted effort by Harvard Business School to close the achievement gap between male and female students. For the class of 2013, the project was more successful than administators had even hoped. Women quickly caught up in the classroom. But the problem runs deeper than that. It's not that women are incapable of doing well in business school (as the experiment proves). It's that they don't neccessarily want to. "After years of observation, administrators and professors agreed that one particular factor was torpedoing female class participation grades: women, especially single women, often felt they had to choose between academic and social success," writes Kantor in the crucial observation.

It's also not just women who are attuned to that. Elsewhere, Kantor quotes a man who declines to go on the record for fear that it will damage his social capital. “I could blow up my network with one wrong comment,” he tells her. A student forum called by administrators in response to a sexual assault ended up becoming a forum about, essentially, social privilege, when one woman declared that "Someone made the decision for me that I’m not pretty or wealthy enough to be in Section X [an informal secret society of wealthy, high-living students]."  People of both genders take on thousands of dollars of extra debt to be able to keep up with their jet-setting classmates who come from wealthier backgrounds, or made a boatload in their first few years out of school. The students, in general, seem far more concerned with the inequities caused by money than by gender. The whole thing put me in mind not so much of an academic social experiment, but a class-obsessed nineteenth-century novel. Edith Wharton would have licked her lips in delight at lines like "She wanted to meet someone soon, maybe at Harvard, which she and other students feared could be their 'last chance among cream-of-the-crop-type people,' as she put it."

Business school is technically a trade school, but as many attendees will happily tell you, it's mostly a place for networking. It's a place where students evaluate and trade commodities: looks, money, smarts. Academic success might not be as important as meeting the right people. The women who go to Harvard and decide that social conquest will be their approach aren't dummies. They are making pragmatic choices. They've looked at their post-school prospects and decided that meeting the right people (including maybe meeting the right partner) might serve them better than raising their hands. You can carefully engineer business school so that everyone will be given equal opportunity to shine, but you can't do that in the real world.

Or ... maybe fixing the gender stuff is the "easy" part of that engineering. It seems to me important that students at HBS graduated this year with a different understanding of what women are capable of, and of how they ought to behave themselves professionally, than their classmates five or fifty years ago did. That, I am hopeful, will slowly change the culture at the places these students go to work. The problem of how directly social capital translates to success seems like a harder one to change. An institution like Harvard Business School itself is theoretically supposed to be a tool for making America more of a meritocracy, after all. As Kantor's reporting shows, even the students there don't seem to think it does.