Monday, May 21, 2018 at 2pm

How to Confront Unconscious Gender Bias in Your MBA Program

How to Confront Unconscious Gender Bias in Your MBA Program main image

The lack of women in business is not just an industry problem. Every MBA program struggles to enroll a high number of women in their programs year to year. My cohort at UBC Sauder, for instance, has 33 women, 62 men, and one non-binary student.

At first, I was nervous to enroll in an MBA program knowing it could end up being a “boys’ club” but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the dynamic of our cohort and the program overall. The program staff and professors do an excellent job of encouraging everyone in the class to contribute equally, as we’re here to learn from our classmates alongside the curriculum. The cohort is very supportive of the women in our class which is seen during in-class discussions, while working on group projects, and in conversations outside of the classroom.

As the co-chair of the Women in Business club, I’m at the forefront of many of the topics and issues that arise related to gender equality and diversity inclusion. During our second period, our cohort experienced unconscious gender bias firsthand and I’m so grateful for it as our cohort is stronger and our conversations have been more meaningful since that day. The men in our class were directly affected by the incident and many of them were the first to observe how gender may have played a role.

Here is what happened. It was the final day of a six-week term which involved a case competition. Our cohort’s teams were split up evenly according to gender, when possible, leaving only four all-male teams and the remaining 16 teams had at least two females. The three teams chosen to compete in the final round of the competition were all… can you guess? Yes, men.

I didn’t even bat an eye. I simply assumed these teams had obviously presented so well that they deserved to be up there. This is the point where the other men started to speak up. I sensed a shift in the large auditorium as we watched our classmates. I was sure that I would be so captivated by the strategies and recommendations within the chosen finalists’ presentations that I would completely forget about the potential gender bias hiccup our cohort was about to endure. Unfortunately, these presentations weren’t absolutely exceptional; instead they were merely fine.

Although the winning team did clearly deserve that honor, myself and my classmates were left speechless by what we had experienced. We didn’t witness each team’s presentations that day so we couldn’t concretely say that any other team should have been up there, we just knew it didn’t feel right. Some of my female classmates were even excusing themselves mid-conversation because their biggest doubts had just been confirmed by a pool of six judges and the tears could no longer be held back.

The only logical action I could take was to find my co-chair and figure out what we could do to keep this conversation going, as painful as it was. We approached the faculty member who organized the competition. He was already aware of the situation and was feeling responsible for the outcome. After profusely apologizing, we convinced him that we didn’t want an apology, we wanted more conversations and guidance for how we as a cohort can handle these situations in the future.

Since that incident, we have had waves of enthusiasm pass through the class related to gender equity and diversity inclusion. Many of our professors are very mindful of the gender disparities within certain industries and some have addressed it in their course discussions. One professor, a partner at a venture capital firm, spent around 30 minutes responding to a classmate’s question about why only about 7 percent of partners at top venture capital firms are women.

Instead of responding immediately, he opened the question up to the class to hear why we thought this was the case. My classmates shared their views and frustrations regarding this truth which led to a conversation about women in male-dominated industries. Our professor then shared how his firm is looking to improve the composition of their team in regard to gender and diversity but said that it’s a challenge. He closed the discussion by saying: “There are qualified women out there, we just have to be willing to look harder for them.”

The conversations we’ve had related to gender equality and our cohort’s awareness of the problem are encouraging as we enter into the internship component of the MBA program. Has gender equality drastically improved in every industry while we’ve been away from the workforce these last eight months? No. Will gender bias continue to influence our every action and word as we navigate our next career move as women? Yes. Are the conversations related to gender equality easier to start? Absolutely.   

How to confront unconscious gender bias? The very first step is to find ways to talk about it. Be brave enough to ask questions related to gender equity in class. Challenge the way society generalizes and attaches certain qualities to each gender. Change the assumed gender of the CEO of an all-male fictional team in your next case memo so that the professor might recognize the importance of assigning texts that promote gender equality.

The second step is to be inclusive in everything that you do. Unconscious bias occurs in many forms and learning how to recognize it and prevent it will only come by educating oneself. Invite diverse business leaders to speak on campus about their experiences. Research a new topic or industry considering how it might affect different stakeholder groups that you may not belong to. Ask your classmates what you can do to help them succeed as each of you undoubtedly faces different obstacles in life, personally and professionally.

Whether it’s gender, race, status, or any other label, in order to eliminate biases, conscious and unconscious, we must start with ourselves. I challenge you to find a way to promote inclusion in your everyday life. Talk about it, read about it, and learn how to be the change. 

Jen Bower is a Full-time MBA candidate at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business. Jen has chosen the Entrepreneurship & Innovation track with a secondary focus in marketing.     Her background is in legal practice development and data consulting. Jen enjoys working for companies who choose to make a difference through their daily operations. Outside of class and work, Jen is an avid runner, hiker, and baker. 

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