In his “State of the Union” address on January 29th, President Obama drew a few chuckles with the line “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode.” A laugh drawn from a bitterly divided Congress is rather shocking, but the point behind the President’s statement is much more so. He cited a statistic saying that, in the United States, a woman can still earn, on average, 77 cents for every dollar a man earns in an equivalent job. That, as the president rightly said, is an embarrassment.
President Obama is not alone in acknowledging such embarrassments. Knowingly or not, he echoed sentiments relayed just a few hours earlier by the dean of the Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria, speaking to an alumni gathering in San Francisco. Dean Nohria acknowledged that, in the distant and recent past, there have been times when women at HBS felt “disrespected, left out, and unloved by the school,” and he issued an unequivocal apology, and a promise to right the wrong.
As a woman, a business owner, and mother of a daughter, I am disappointed that this conversation is still necessary. It should be beyond doubt that women and men receive equal pay for equal work, and that female business students receive the same respect and representation accorded to their male counterparts. It should be, but as the president’s and the dean’s remarks too clearly show, it is not, even today. I hope, though, that both men- President Obama and Dean Nohria- can take steps towards that reality, if not for my generation, then certainly for my daughter’s.
The proposals that Dean Nohria mentioned could make a good start. Over the next five years, the dean promised that 20% of HBS’s case studies would feature female protagonists. This might seem like a paltry offer until you consider that, currently, a dismal 9% of case studies feature female leads. Doubling that number will certainly be helpful at HBS, and the ripple effect could be powerful, as HBS case studies account for more than 80% of the case study material presented in business classrooms worldwide.
The dean also pledged to launch programs encouraging female leadership on boards of directors and establishing mentorship initiatives among female students and alumni. As with President Obama’s condemnation of the gender pay gap, these promises will only be empty words if they are not followed by sustained action. However, the candor and the emotion shown by both men- both in very powerful positions- could go a long way towards making those promises reality. It is early days yet, but perhaps we are moving into a new era of “Mad Men”- an era where men fight for women’s rights in the workplace as fiercely as women themselves do, and where success- no matter what gender- is passionately encouraged. That is the sort of era I want my daughter to grow up in.