Business School Gender Inequality: What’s to Be Done?

It’s going to take more than a bandaid. Solving gender inequality in business schools requires facing hard truths and righting past wrongs.

In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek blog, I used statistics provided by AACSB to show that US business schools have an entrenched gender discrimination problem. B-School leaders tend to shrug and turn their palms up, blaming women for their own unequal treatment. But it is pretty clear from those graphs that there is an institutional–not an individual–problem.

Even if the business schools can accept that their female faculty are not just digging their own graves, there is still a tendency to act as if there is nothing that can be done to change the situation. In particular, apologists point to pools of incoming female faculty who gradually just disappear, year after year, as if by magic!  The thoughtless response is just to hire more, rather than to take a sincere look in the mirror and ask what might be alienating these women.

Actually, I think the necessary steps are pretty obvious.  It’s just that these are more onerous remedies than most business schools are prepared to undertake.  The key things to be done:

In some cases, the pay disparity between men and women is not very much and in some, it is a lot. The size of the disparity is not the point: look at the pattern. The fact that the inequality exists across the entire sample of 604 US business schools, visible in the aggregate at every level in every discipline, indicates that pay inequity is not an individual, but an institutional problem.

1. Equalize compensation.  The only meaningful indicator of true commitment to diversity is equal pay.  Without that, everything else is window-dressing.

2.  Recognize that the real problem happens after they come through the door.  Making a sincere effort to improve the environment means facing up to some hard truths.  It can only be done by having candid conversations between male and female colleagues.  Silencing those who try to speak about this issue–either through ridicule or anger–is counterproductive.

3. Change the culture in the classroom.  The combative tenor of MBA teaching perpetuates an antique view of business as cutthroat and back-stabbing.  More women students and gender teaching materials will help, but as long as the teaching culture remains aggressive, young female faculty will leave in droves. To evaluate these young teachers based only on the feedback from students, especially given the tenor of these particular classrooms, is inexcusable.

This is what happens to female faculties across all disciplines within business schools. From left, they are hired in at just under 40% of the new intake, but dwindle to under 20% of full professors.

4.  Rethink the whole “hard methods” ideology.  It is embarrassingly out of date and ill-founded. It is also probably used too often as a cover for discrimination.

I am constantly amazed by the lengths to which people will go to excuse this situation, to “explain” it by all manner of narrow-minded remarks. The business schools need to shed this defensiveness and focus on solutions.

There is no point in pretending this isn’t a power issue. On the left, we see men and women starting out in the lower ranks together. Sixteen years later, the women are still in the lower ranks, but the men are in the positions that make decisions over all others. Since 2004, matters have only worsened. This graph is from Shani Carter’s 2010 analysis of US Dept of Education data. See the Bloomberg Blog for more about it.

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