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Why Chanda Kochhar's remarks on women raised hackles

By Vikram Johri
November 13, 2015 21:12 IST
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There may be complex reasons for why girls do not opt for science, technology, engineering and math, but Chanda Kochhar is pointing to the non-essential nature of those subjects for at least one discipline – management, notes Vikram Johri. 

ICICI Bank CEO Chanda Kochhar stirred a hornet's nest this week when she linked the low numbers of women in B-school to a focus on quantitative ability in the testing process.

"The MBA entrance exams are so quantitative-oriented that it keeps out more and more women from joining the MBA classes. If we were to make the entrance exams more all-rounded you could see more participation," Kochhar said in a speech.

A number of people responded acidly to Kochhar's comments, by calling into question her assumptions and invoking remarks made by former Harvard don Larry Summers who was forced to quit his post in 2005 when he said: "There is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means - which can be debated - there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability of a male and female population [with regard to innate mathematical ability]."

Critics of Kochhar and Summers pointed to how girls are not socialised towards an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects and this may be why women have poor representation in those fields at college and university levels.

While that may be the case, Kochhar was not necessarily questioning the "innate ability" of girls in STEM fields, as is being portrayed. Her beef is with a system that lays too much stress on quant when it does not need to.

There may be complex reasons for why girls do not opt for STEM, but Kochhar is pointing to the non-essential nature of those subjects for at least one discipline - management.

Indeed, within the B-school paradigm, one notices a gendering of subjects alluded to by Kochhar. Complex finance and investment banking, the ne plus ultra of corporate offerings on campus, are mostly the preserve of men, with few women opting for roles that require 18-hour work days.

Men can afford to be "masters of the universe" because they do not have home and hearth considerations to worry about.

The problem starts when the order of subjects is placed in a hierarchy governed by how quant-driven the subject is. Finance is on top, followed by marketing and general management.
Operations comes next, and is fairly quant-driven but is not among the top disciplines because working on the shop floor is considered grunt work.

All these are followed by Human Resources, the most subjective of B-school disciplines and for that reason, the most lampooned.

Let me explain how silly this hierarchy is. Marketing, say, is about analysing interactions that are part of everyday consumer experience.

The insights so generated are deeply fascinating. My favourite subjects during MBA were consumer behaviour and promotional strategy.

While I enjoyed both, there was something disquieting about running pivot tables through and drowning in statistics information that was too self-evident to doubt.

There was, for instance, this report on sensory marketing, where it was shown that consumers are more likely to buy a luxury product if the setting they shop in is pleasantly perfumed and plays soft music.

A more commonplace finding was the classic study on how the placement of goods on supermarket shelves affects buying behaviour.

These facts only became marketing dogma after they were verified by experimentation. But always, the students who performed the best in the promotional strategy class were those who could work more than numbers.

The other issue pertains to the level of quant skills needed. Working on the derivatives desk of a bank requires a different skill set to working in an advertising firm.

Marketing functions related to advertising, branding, product placement, mobile marketing and social media marketing call for skills of discernment, which a focus on quant fails to capture. The one-size-fits-all nature of entrance tests such as CAT leaves no room for accommodating this difference.

In general, there is little scope for creativity in the B-school paradigm as it exists today, which in turn is an outcome of the thinking that nobody goes to a B-school to learn.

One goes there to build networks that will push one into the stratosphere of high earnings.

This idea is so deeply entrenched in the B-school ethic that it defines success for everyone who is part of the ecosystem -professors to placement committees, PhD candidates to the support staff.

If it attracts bucket loads of money, it is welcome, creativity and soft skills be damned.

Perhaps it is this dominant attitude, and not just gender misrepresentation in B-schools, that Kochhar sought to criticise with her remarks.

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Vikram Johri
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