The case for gender-balanced business schools

female presenter lecturer
female presenter lecturer

The business case for appointing more women into leadership roles in commercial organisations rests on the premise that homogenous male teams don’t perform as well as those that include women. 

Evidence shows that company performance is superior to its peers when the business has a higher representation of women in key roles. This is due to the better customer insight and innovative ideas that stem from a leadership team with different life experiences and perspectives, complementary characteristics, a balanced approach to risk, more ethical decision making, and high-performing people are attracted to work in more inclusive and progressive workplaces. 

How does this translate to business schools?

It’s intuitive that creating high-performing and inclusive faculties is critical, not only to broaden perspectives and improve decision making, but also to authentically teach students and those on postgraduate and executive programmes how to tap into superior business performance.

Student diversity not reflected among faculty

Business schools across the world have made good progress in recruiting gender-balanced student cohorts.  Yet this balance is not yet achieved within the faculty, and there are still far fewer women than men achieving professorships.

It’s important to note that a significant male majority in a faculty where there’s a gender-balanced skills pipeline of business graduates simply can’t be a meritocracy; women are being excluded, either intentionally or through systemic practices that stop them being promoted proportionately, force them to leave or prevent them from accessing the roles in the first place.

There’s a wealth of research published on the benefits of gender balance in business, and the reasons why it currently eludes so many. A rich reserve of journal articles and papers written by academics from top schools, such as Harvard, Columbia and MIT, offer robust evidence and suggest solutions. Yet if you look at the photos of the faculty in many business schools, you would be forgiven for wondering if those in power had actually read any of them.  As the number of suited grey-haired middle-aged white men occupying boardrooms diminishes, university faculties will seem increasingly out of touch with modern business if they don’t reflect this change.

Success and popularity

To understand one reason why there has been little change, turn to the Heidi-Howard study undertaken by Frank Flynn while he was at Columbia Business School [Flynn is now at Stanford Graduate School of Business]. Half of a student group were given a description of a successful woman called ‘Heidi Roizen’, while the other half were give the same information but with the name changed to ‘Howard’. Both male and female students liked Howard but intensely disliked Heidi, proving that the more successful women become, the less popular they are. Success and popularity are positively correlated for men but negatively correlated for women.

Therefore, if progression in the world of academia is dependent on peer reviews, personal letters of recommendation, or the support of the head of department for any application for a professorship, it could be that high-performing women are disliked and more harshly judged than the man who is liked for being ambitious and competitive. Any subjective means of assessing an individual’s performance could be open to bias, favouritism and impression management, all of which will give an advantage to the current dominant majority.

What other practices might be preventing women climbing the career ladder in academia? Misogyny, micro-aggressions, and sexual harassment will all exist in a workplace that enables male dominance to go unchecked.  It’s essential that colleagues are fully informed as to what constitutes unacceptable behaviour and zero tolerance is adopted, with perpetrators being fired despite excelling in other aspects. Anyone abusing their power can’t be exercising sound judgement or ethics in other areas and will be damaging the institution in ways that will only be revealed after their departure. 

Selection criteria and workloads

It’s widely recognised that women will only apply for a job where they think they meet all of the criteria when men will give it a whirl when they only meet 60%. If the selection criteria are opaque or unnecessarily extensive, women will be deterred. The solution is to keep the criteria realistic and ask women to apply.

Are women being given extra workloads or agreeing to undertake more non-promotable tasks than their male colleagues at business school? Women were assigned 55% of the work compared to 45% for men, in a 2018 report from Hive. Despite this 10% workload difference, both sexes completed 66% of their allocated work and the report noted that women are assigned and spend more time on non-promotable tasks (any activity that is beneficial to the organisation but doesn’t contribute to career advancement) than men. Women in faculty positions may be more greatly encumbered with extra non-research responsibilities as a result of their rarity and the desire to have a gender balance on administrative committees.

The quantity of research published is a key performance indicator for an academic, and it’s usually the case that male academics publish a higher volume than their female peers. This could be due to the extra workload women have both at home and at work, or gender bias in commissioning of academic papers, or the peer review process. Editors should examine their processes and remove bias from the system, and business school leaders should look for quality of output rather than quantity, and ensure fairer allocation of non-promotable tasks.

In business, women feel less comfortable with self-promotion than men. It’s possible that female academics are also less likely to promote their own work, so they could do more to build a more widely recognised personal brand.

Recruitment bias

Business schools often require academics to have practiced in industry, and should therefore moderate for the fact that women face bias and are not promoted proportionately in many businesses. They are also less likely to have been promoted beyond their competence, or to exaggerate roles, than male peers.

To avoid bias in recruitment, the number of female applicants in the recruitment pool is critical. Stephanie Johnson, David Hekman and Elsa Chan [of the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business] examined a university’s hiring decisions for academic positions with regards to women and men in a 2016 study.

They found that if there’s only one woman in a candidate pool of four finalists, there’s statistically no chance she’ll be hired. They established that a candidate pool of two women and two men led to a 50% chance of a woman being hired. A lone woman in the pool was never recruited; whereas a lone man led to a disproportionate 33% chance of the man being hired, rather than the 25% you would expect.

They suggest this is because people have a bias towards the status quo. If the job attracts a shortlist with a greater number of male candidates, then a single woman in the pool stands out as a deviation from the norm, and recruiters make a decision in line with the accepted norm.

The simple hack of always having gender-balanced shortlists could have a significant impact on whether more women are successful because they’re no longer seen as a deviation from the male norm. It’s important that business schools make their female academics visible, are given the recognition they deserve, and given the space in their schedule to do more research. The more it becomes the norm to see women in senior roles, the easier it will be for other women to not be seen as an anomaly.

To create a high-performing business school, you need a faculty of high performing gender-balanced diverse academics, and you must create an inclusive environment to optimise the performance of all of them. It’s as much about the battle against the exclusion of women as it is for inclusion. Business school academics that wish to influence business leaders on how to run successful businesses must walk the talk with regards to gender balance and inclusion, and they will reap the benefits.

Julia Muir is the Founder of the Automotive 30% Club, a network of automotive CEOs and MDs working to close the gender gap. She is also CEO of Gaia Innovation and author of Change the Game (Practical Inspiration Publishing, 2021).

BGA members can benefit from a discount on Change the Game, courtesy of the BGA Book Club. Please click here for details.

Read more Business Impact articles related to women in business:

Business Impact: Celebrating young leaders
Women in business and leadership

Celebrating young leaders

A former AMBA MBA Student of the Year offers a case study in pursuing a career with impact, as described by the European Young Leaders programme on the occasion of its 10th anniversary

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