How can Business Schools Really Achieve a Gender Balance?

In search of gender balance at business school

Gender balance at business school is about more than simply the number of female students at a given institution. That is merely phase one, and phase two – creating gender balance throughout an institution and addressing persevering cultures “has hardly begun”, write Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Lesley Symons in the Harvard Business Review.

Symons, a graduate of INSEAD, has looked into top business schools’ performance since 2010 in terms of their proportion of female students and faculty members.

In so doing, she discovered that while it is fair to say that female student numbers have been improving, the same cannot be said for school’s proportion of female faculty – especially among the highest-ranking business schools.

Successfully achieving lasting gender balance at business school, in Symons’ mind (and everyone else’s, you’d hope), requires both. However, she found few examples of schools that could claim that over 40% of students and 30% of faculty members were female. Indeed, in the results, a number of top-ranking schools were shown to have faculties that are currently less than 20% female. 

The finding reinforces what she previously found when looking into the gender dynamics contained within the business case study – an archetypal teaching tool for MBA programs. Here, Symons noted a preponderance of male protagonists and a lack of female role models.

The problem identified here is simple: the atmosphere at the business schools and MBA programs still very much centers on men – all the way from professors and course leaders to the case study materials used to illustrate their teachings in a real-world context. This affects students of any gender.

UN report underlines extent of global pay gap

Global pay gap revealedIn the ‘real’ world, among companies both small and large, and in countries both emerging and developed, a lack of gender balance at professional level is most clearly evidenced in both the pay gap between men and women and in the shortage of women holding organizations’ highest positions (there are more men called John or Jean holding CEO positions in the UK’s FTSE 100 than there are women).

Globally, women earn 24% less than men, on average, according to a report released this week by UN Women, entitled ‘Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016’. This pay gap was highlighted as being highest in South Asia, at 33%, but still came out as 23% among those areas categorized as ‘Developed Regions’.   

Indeed, in accounting for a lifetime of differences in employment rates and pay between men and women the UN report flagged up ever more troubling results. Lifetime income - allowing for the inclusion of state payments, such as pensions and family allowances, as well as the gender pay gap - was found to be 31% lower for women in France and Sweden than for men, with this divide growing further, to 49% in Germany and as high as 75% in Turkey.

Part of the gender pay gap problem lies with the fact that women only hold a third of management and higher professional positions worldwide when, conversely, they account for 63% of clerical and support positions. At the very highest level this proportion drops further – on the boards of six of the most influential global economic institutions analyzed in the UN report, the proportion of women ranged from a meager 4% to no higher than 20% in 2014.

Worryingly, among women in the EU who do hold management and higher professional positions, 75% said they had, at some stage of their careers, encountered a form of sexual harassment in the workplace, according to the UN report.

This damning statistic brings us back to the issue of pervading cultures. If business schools can’t expose tomorrow’s leaders to an organizational culture in which gender balance is the norm, then they are unlikely to be much help in altering preconceived notions of the roles men and women can and can’t play in the workplace.  

Harvard Business School’s sneak peek into the MBA experience

It’s clear that increasing access to education – particularly at master’s level and above - has a crucial role to play in changing these circumstances. A new initiative launched by Harvard Business School (HBS) this month certainly demonstrates its commitment to continue raising female student numbers. Known as PEEK, the HBS initiative aims to bring female students and new graduates at college level onto campus so they can see the value of an MBA firsthand over a weekend interacting with faculty.

Yet, as we have seen, raising student numbers may only get you so far. The UN report found that no matter what level of education a woman attains, they still wind up earning less their male peers.

The suggestion is that business schools need to focus more on the differing experiences men and women have in attending their programs, rather than simply seeking to achieve gender balance in student numbers and hope the rest takes care of itself. Are high-potential female students being held back – consciously or subconsciously - by an environment, for example, in which male professors might still outnumber their female counterparts 4:1?    

Perhaps HBS’s PEEK Weekend, which has already been criticized for coming with a price tag of US$500, at least recognizes the need to assess the experience it offers female students at the same time as encouraging a greater number of applications. Interestingly, having promised to up the level of female representation in its case studies, Harvard Business School says that all case studies used over the inaugural PEEK Weekend will feature female protagonists.

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Written by Tim Dhoul

Tim is a writer with a background in consumer journalism and charity communications. He trained as a journalist in the UK and holds degrees in history (BA) and Latin American studies (MA).

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