When the members of the Harvard Business School class of 2013 — 905 graduates united into one genderless mass — gathered in May to celebrate the end of their studies, there was little visible evidence of the experiment they had undergone for the last two years.

Students had been unwitting guinea pigs in what would have once sounded like a far-fetched feminist fantasy: What if Harvard Business School gave itself a gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success?

The country’s premier business training ground was trying to solve a seemingly intractable problem. Year after year, women who had arrived with the same test scores and grades as men fell behind. Attracting and retaining female professors was a losing battle.

Many Wall Street-hardened women confided that Harvard was worse than any trading floor. Some male students, many with finance backgrounds, commandeered classroom discussions and hazed female students and younger faculty members.

But in 2010, Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first female president, appointed a new dean — Nitin Nohria — who pledged to do far more than his predecessors to remake gender relations at the business school. He and his team tried to change how students spoke, studied and socialised. The administrators installed stenographers in the classroom to guard against biased grading; provided secret coaching for untenured female professors; and even departed from the hallowed case-study method.

The dean’s ambitions extended far beyond campus. Turning around its record on women could have an untold impact at other business schools, at companies populated by Harvard alumni and in the Fortune 500, where only 21 chief executives are women. The institution would become a laboratory for studying how women speak in group settings, the links between romantic relationships and professional status, and the use of everyday measurement tools to reduce bias.

“We have to lead the way, and then lead the world in doing it,” said Frances Frei.

By graduation, the school had become a markedly better place for female students, according to interviews with more than 70 professors, administrators and students, who cited more women participating in class; record numbers of women winning academic awards; and a much-improved environment.

The administrators had no sense of whether their lessons would last once their charges left campus. As faculty members pointed out, the more exquisitely gender-sensitive the school environment became, the less resemblance it bore to the real business world.

‘To each her own’

Women at Harvard lagged badly in class participation, a highly subjective measure that made up 50 per cent of each final mark. Every year the same hierarchy emerged early on: Investment bank and hedge fund veterans, often men, sliced through equations while others — including many women — sat frozen or spoke tentatively. The deans lectured about respect and civility; expanded efforts like hand-raising coaching; and added stenographers in every class so professors would no longer rely on possibly biased memories of who had said what.

They rounded out the case-study method with a new course called Field, which grouped students into problem-solving teams. New grading software tools let professors instantly check their calling and marking patterns by gender. One professor, Mikolaj Piskorski, summarised Mr. Nohria’s message later: “We’re going to solve it at the school level, but each of you is responsible to identify what you are doing that gets you to this point.”

A few days before the end of the fall semester, Amanda Upton, an investment banking veteran, stood before most of her classmates, lecturing and quizzing them about finance. Every term just before finals, the Women’s Student Association organised a review session for each subject, led by a student who blitzed classmates through reams of material in an hour. Ms. Upton delivered a bravado performance, clearing up confusion about discounted cash flow and how to price bonds.

Like many other women, Kate Lewis, the school newspaper editor, believed in the deans’ efforts. But she thought Ms. Upton’s turn did more to fortify the image of women than anything administrators had done. “It’s the most powerful message: This girl knows it better than all of you,” she said.

‘Courage to choose’

As their final semester drew to a close, the students were preoccupied with the looming question of their own employment. Like graduates before them, more men would be going into higher-paying areas like finance and more women going into lower-paying ones like marketing.

The deans had not focused on career choice, earning power or staying in the workforce; they felt they first needed to address campus issues. Besides, the earning gap posed a dilemma: They were hoping fewer students would default to finance as a career. “Have the courage to make the choices early in your life that are determined by your passions,” Mr. Nohria told students.

Ms. Upton decided to take a far lower-risk job managing a wealthy family’s investments in Pittsburgh, where her fiancé lived. “You can either be a frontier charger or have an easier, happier life,” she said.

Of all the ceremonies and receptions during graduation week, the most venerated was the George F. Baker Scholar Luncheon, for the top five per cent of the class.

This year, almost 40 per cent of the Baker scholars were women.

One of the Baker scholars was Brooke Boyarsky. She stepped up to a lectern to address thousands of graduates, faculty members and parents to give a witty, self-deprecating speech unlike any in the school’s memory.

“I entered HBS as a truly ‘untraditional applicant’: morbidly obese,” she said.

The theme of her speech was finding the courage to make necessary but painful changes. “Courage is a brand new HBS professor, younger than some of her students, teaching her very first class on her very first day”, she said. Even before she finished, her phone was buzzing with e-mails and texts from classmates. She was the girl everyone wished they had gotten to know better, the graduation-week equivalent of the person whose obituary made you wish you had followed her work. She had closed the two-year experiment by making the best possible case for it. — New York Times News Service