Monday, September 27, 2010

The global importance of closing gender gaps .... including one at Harvard

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof gave an excellent talk here at the Kennedy School tonight on the importance of closing gender gaps in the developing world.

One of his premises: Identifying excellence in every single demographic is a necessity rather than luxury, especially for developing countries who try to succeed in increasingly competitive global markets.  And females, Kristof argues, are one of the least tapped demographics globally.  To make his point, he borrowed a statement that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates had made at a business seminar in Saudi Arabia back in 2007 -- to a room with segregated seating for men and women. And it directly addressed the men:
"[I]f you're not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you're not going to get too close to the top."
Gates's observation, of course, is one that even the most cynical economists cannot argue with: If there is a certain probability of finding excellence in any given stratum, any underrepresentation from that stratum undermines excellence.

The notion of tapping the best and brightest in every demographic, however, also raises an interesting conundrum at Harvard -- and one that was not raised during the talk and the Q&A tonight.  Last week, the Council of Graduate Schools released a report showing that -- for the first time ever-- more women in the U.S. had received Ph.D.s in the 2008-09 academic year than men.  The important factoid related to tonight's talk: Harvard lags almost 10 percentage points behind the U.S. national average in that category.  The tricky part with problems closest to home is that sometimes they can be the least obvious ones.