Gender Equity at HKS: The Time for Change is Now

Sehr Taneja

By Sehr Taneja (MPP 2022)

In 2019, I arrived at the Harvard Kennedy School after two years working in Indian politics, where I would often have to squint to see another woman around me. I was hopeful that here I would find ways to achieve equal representation. In my first year, however, I had only male professors. Seven of my eleven courses were mandatory MPP core classes and none were taught by women or nonbinary professors. 

As a woman hoping to break through the gender barriers of the public world, I was disheartened to see the lack of representation persist in one of the world’s leading policy schools. I began to wonder how HKS would teach us to achieve equality in the grand circus of the real world if it hadn’t quite figured out how to reach there in its own little case study.

Recently, the halls of HKS flaunted purple balloons as the Women in Power Conference (WIPC) took over the campus. Rooms were filled with inspiring women who have paved their way to success despite the obstacles presented by a world catering to men. Halls were packed with hopeful students in search of meaningful dialogue and concrete steps to achieve gender equity. As I shuffled from panel to panel, I questioned the irony of attending the WIPC at a school that has failed to achieve gender equity in its almost 90 years of existence.

WIPC Director of Inclusion and Diversity, Idia Irele says she joined the conference team because it’s important to her to ensure that women and non-binary people are represented. As a first year MPA student at HKS, however, Irele had only one female professor. Initially, she told herself she should make a more conscious effort to seek more diversity in her professors. But soon she came to the realization that having diversity in her professors should not be so hard for her. 

In 2012, the former Dean David T. Ellwood and former Academic Dean Iris Bohnet laid out the challenges they face in achieving  gender equality among HKS faculty. Tenured faculty turn over slowly leading to limited new faculty positions every year. In addition, the school reflects the reality of the broader policy and political science space, where fewer women make it to the pool of applicants. Ellwood and Bohnet also laid out steps the school was taking to work around these challenges, such as hiring more practitioners and initiating a mentoring program for junior faculty. However, data demonstrates that change has been slow – slower than what should be acceptable at a premier policy school.

According to the most recent HKS Diversity report, there are 33% female faculty at the school. This figure increased from 23% in 2012 to 29% in 2018, and finally to the current 33%. That’s a snail-paced 10 percentage point growth over 10 years. And till now, there is no nonbinary faculty. 

The wider Harvard community has an even more shameful gender diversity ratio, with only 29% female faculty. Meanwhile, Columbia University has made its way to 46% female faculty and Yale to 43%. This highlights that progress is achievable if the school is committed to taking the necessary steps. It also means that Dean Bohnet and Dean Ellwood’s explanations laid out in 2012 stand out as mere excuses for the lack of concerted effort to achieve equality on campus.

Over the last week, I reached out to the Dean, program directors and professors at HKS to seek information on the gender diversity among faculty, representation in the MPP, MPA/ID core, and the action plan to improve the situation. I also asked when we can expect to see equal representation among HKS faculty. I learned that the MPP core now has 40% female faculty, but received no information on how this changed over time or on the plans for the future. 

In place of a response from any of them, I received this response from HKS spokesperson, Sofiya Cabalquinto:

“Harvard Kennedy School is committed to increasing the diversity of our faculty across a variety of dimensions, including gender and race. Our faculty recruiting processes are designed to reduce possible bias, in part by having diverse search committees and hiring in clusters where possible. However, changes in our faculty composition occur slowly because faculty turnover is low. We will continue to work vigorously to build a more diverse and inclusive Harvard Kennedy School.”

Even 10 years after Dean Ellwood and Dean Bohnet’s comments, the non-committal approach to equity continues with the same excuses about low turnover being repeated and reused. 

The world of policy and politics is fraught with gender equality challenges. I come from the world’s largest democracy, but our national parliament has been unable to get more than 12% female representation. It is unfortunate that these representation barriers are shared at a school that is on a mission to “improve public policy and leadership so people can live in societies that are more safe, free, just, and sustainably prosperous.” Isn’t it ironic that the Kennedy School boasts about its ability to improve leadership when it has failed to have representative leadership internally?. 

At the conference, speaking on the steps taken to achieve gender equity at the city level, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui highlighted that she believes it is essential to conduct thorough internal evaluations of the current situation and build systems into the recruiting process to ensure a more representative team. 

To say that we’re stuck with the status quo because people have held positions for as long as memory takes us back is nothing more than an insult to those hoping to be represented in their leadership. Similarly, saying that the churn is slow leading to limited new positions every year at HKS is an insult to the hundreds of students who walk into the doors of HKS every year hoping that these sacred rooms will show  us the path to building a more just society.  

The time for change is now. 

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