Changing the gender paradigm through business education

Changing the gender paradigm through business education

Thursday, May 12 2016

The EFMD and AACSB International are encouraging business schools to address the challenges of gender bias and yet sadly, progress remains decidedly slow. In 2016’s Financial Times ranking of global business schools, only 12 of the top 100 institutions had female leaders as deans, and the proportions of female board members, faculty and students stood at 24%, 26%, and 34% respectively. Yet these very business schools should be – and can be – game changers given that they are creating the business influencers of tomorrow.

Business schools’ decision makers should take the lead in developing innovative approaches for dealing with gender inequality. They have to consciously and determinedly change the masculine business paradigm that remains dominant in the vast majority of schools. Business schools play a significant role in informing the business practices and worldview of tomorrow’s leaders and influencers through their research and educational programs. They have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to make a difference!

Gender bias and many of the other barriers to women’s advancement occur because of how our social construction of gender defines the role of women. Gender bias is as much a female issue as it is a male one, and changing this gender paradigm will require extreme effort and commitment from both men and women. However, it is surely our collective responsibility.

Research concerning the gender paradigm shows:

- Female leaders who display assertiveness are perceived as competent, but unpleasant. They are seen as not acting to type by being warm, communicative and gentle.

- Both men and women have been found more likely to hire a man than a woman with the same professional and educational qualifications.

- Employers discriminate against mothers but not fathers, and mothers are seen to be less competent than women who are not mothers.

It is so important to be aware of these unconscious levels of gender bias. Business schools shape management attitudes and practices as well as molding the thought leaders of tomorrow. Deans, department chairs and program directors should be aware that hiring and recruiting practices, research and pedagogical materials, business programs, and role models are not gender neutral – and work to spread this message.

Gender bias in case studies

Think of the business cases we use in the classroom. Although most case studies have nothing to do with gender, few feature female leaders as their primary protagonists. It is important for pedagogical materials to explore more cases of women in leadership roles as a matter of course rather than as an ‘illustration of gender. When I mentioned this at a conference I attended, a female lecturer admitted that she wrote a number of vignettes for her accounting class but that she only used the names of men. She said she was unaware of this until I mentioned it and was going to change this pattern immediately. Furthermore, I asked students in an organizational class what cases they have which featured women. The answer was one and that it was a pregnancy case. 

Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School, acknowledged the lack of women in leadership roles when he stated his intention to double the number of Harvard case studies in which female leaders are the protagonists to around 20% by 2019! At the time, the number of such cases was 8%.

Where are the female leaders?

Yet in leadership courses, the charismatic trailblazer who rallies the troops like a great military general still looms large. How many of our leadership classes pay sufficient attention to the question of women in leadership and in what way? How do we talk about Sheryl Sandberg? What about Mary Barra, Chanda Kochhar, Christine Lagarde, Indra Nooyi, Guler Sabanci and Susan Wojcicki?  

Furthermore, the sad reality is that the leaders described in our courses seldom mirror the composition of our classes. Often women in positions of authority are spoken about in derogatory terms and popular press exacerbates this by commenting on the way they dress, the tone of their voices and aspects of their personal lives. Business schools can change this aspect of the gender paradigm by discussing such issues in the classroom. 

As David Collinson and Dennis Tourish (academics at Lancaster and Royal Holloway, respectively, and co-authors of the 2015 paper, ‘Teaching Leadership Critically’) eloquently argue, business school educators need to stop reinforcing the notion that there are “powerful and charismatic male leaders” - usually white - who “rescue” companies. Our leadership courses and broader curricula need to model future leadership that is more diverse. This includes women as well as people of all ethnicities and sexual orientation. This is where business educators can take the lead.

Role models play an extremely important function and have a positive impact on how people view their own abilities. We see too few female role models in business education. Recently, a senior faculty member asked why the majority of faculty members teaching on the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations programs were female, and whether I thought this was a positive. What a strange question, particularly when you consider the extent to which we have avoided asking questions like: ‘Why do we have such a dominance of men teaching at business schools? Is this a good thing?’ Clearly, if such thoughts and questions are widespread, we have a way to go! Female role models are necessary for our students, junior faculty and staff and it would be great to see more women serve as speakers and mentors.

I firmly believe business schools can, and must, play a role in changing the gender paradigm.

However, to do so, we have to look inwards and begin by changing ourselves. We have to change our own culture and this must be inspired, and driven, from leadership. As Peter Drucker so wisely said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. The ecosystem of the university has to change from a male-dominated environment to a gender-neutral environment where both women and men can thrive equally.

Let us be the future we would like to create.

 

This article has been coauthored with Michael John Page, Bentley University’s provost and vice president for academic affairs