"Originally published on Harvard Business Review"
How much value does your MBA provide? The value of your management education derives partly from the skills it helps you develop and partly from the school’s reputation. High-value management education prepares leaders to navigate the most complex challenges organizations face. It forces you to question your assumptions and habitual ways of acting, boosts your self-awareness, and increases your capacity to lead in a way that elevates your organization and the people who work within it above its field of competitors.
Promoting gender equity in the leadership of private and public organizations is one of the most pressing business, economic, and social challenges we face at present. It’s clear that the loss of talent that occurs when women face career advancement barriers poses a threat to firms’ long-term competitiveness. But while many business leaders have embraced the importance of increasing gender equity and are investing in significant efforts to reduce internal obstacles to progress, it’s surprising to find leaders in management education who are not. Take the dean of a leading global business school, who was chatting with business leaders at a reception. ”The proportion of women both on your faculty and among your student body is below average,” one asked, “what are you doing about that?” The dean’s response: “Of course gender is important. But I’d say it’s a second-tier issue for us. Our primary focus is on providing world-class management education.”
Like many people, perhaps this dean is suffering from gender fatigue: he doesn’t have a full picture of the gender barriers that still exist and consequently is tired of hearing so much about gender. Because he fails to perceive how significant the gender equity problem is—as well as the fact that he is implicated in it—the conversation feels like a distraction to him. But in fact, it is impossible to provide a world-class management education in a learning environment that disproportionately serves one half of the population and draws on a limited set of perspectives. In such an environment, the quality of analysis and decision making is diminished.
It’s true that well-meaning but under-resourced diversity initiatives, especially those without firm backing from organizations’ chief executives, can generate more frustration than enlightenment. But business schools that fail to recognize and advocate for the critical role of gender-balanced leadership in business performance simply reinforce the status quo.
Wanting more insight into the thinking behind the dean’s comment, I contacted a colleague who has served on the school’s faculty for many years and inquired about the gender climate there. “It’s poor,” he reported. “Our few women professors receive lower ratings on teaching evaluations than the men do. We know that there is a gender effect in these ratings. And we recruit, retain and promote women at a lower rate than men.” He explained that the proportion of women on the faculty mirrors the low proportion among the school’s lucrative executive program participants. The bottom line is that the school serves up management educators that its clients find most pleasing, even though by so doing it may undermine the quality and value of its programs.
But wait: doesn’t the fact that this school’s female professors receive lower ratings mean that the school is simply rewarding merit by advancing more male than female faculty? No, we cannot conclude this. Research on selection and performance appraisal confirms that people tend to rate others who are demographically similar to them as more qualified. This common form of bias is as prevalent among management students and executive participants as among any other group.
Jodi Kantor’s recent New York Times story on Harvard Business School’s multipronged initiative to promote a gender-equitable climate offers additional insight. Close examination of the HBS culture revealed that, among other problems, classroom discussions were often dominated by a relatively small number of confrontational male students who browbeat female faculty and students in ways that they were not equipped to deal with effectively. Students saw female professors as less able than their male colleagues to manage this classroom dynamic. The effects were damaging for female students as well: because classroom participation counts for half of students’ grades, their academic performance suffered. In addition, it seems that some professors simply overlooked the contributions female students were making in the classroom, unwitting victims of their own biases. In turn, women students rarely achieved the highest honors at HBS. Rather than accepting the classroom dynamic and toughening up the women to handle it better, HBS invested itself in the infinitely more complex and important effort of changing the gender climate. In addition to building in careful observation and measurement of male and female students’ participation and providing coaching for women faculty and students, the school promoted extensive dialogue about gender issues.
Fostering gender equity in business schools is difficult work that requires high-level commitment, resources and creativity. Despite the discomfort and eye-rolling that purposeful culture change creates, however, the HBS case study shows that focused commitment can yield impressive results. In addition to significant increases in female professors’ teaching effectiveness and female students’ academic performance, interviews with more than 70 students, faculty and administrators revealed that HBS had become a markedly better place for women in many ways.
Business schools have a major role to play in fostering the development of gender-balanced business leadership. Developing managers who appreciate the value of gender balance in leadership and are sensitive to the many dynamics that undermine it is a foundational strategy in the effort to make progress. While we applaud the excellent executive women’s leadership development programs that many schools offer, we caution that “fixing the women” will not fix the larger problem. As long as business schools fail to commit to the pursuit of gender equity in our core management programs, our contribution to building the sophisticated leadership competencies businesses need to thrive will be constrained.
To ensure that the management education you invested in retains—and hopefully increases—its value, you should be concerned about how well your school is doing on fostering gender equity. The same thing holds true if you’re in the market for management education: if you care both about the quality of your experience during your studies and the value of your education after completion, it makes sense to investigate the extent to which the schools you are considering are committed to and performing well on gender inclusion. Here are some questions to ask.
- In what ways does the school model a gender-inclusive management style and organizational culture? What initiatives have you implemented, and what have the results been?
- What percentage of the school’s board of trustees are women?
- What percentage of the school’s faculty overall and, in particular, full permanent professors are women? How many female professors will I have in my program?
- What percentage of students in the program are women?
- What do current students and recent graduates have to say regarding the school’s gender climate inside and outside of the classroom?
Clearly, most business schools lack the resources of HBS. And under-resourced gender equity initiatives that lack real commitment from the top of the organization don’t have a great track record. But one thing is clear: it’s time for those who lead business schools to admit to themselves and others that if they aren’t actively working for real gender equity in their classrooms, they are playing into the system of second-generation bias that continues to bedevil businesses today. To produce high-value management education that is needed to drive successful businesses, we need more educational leaders who are visionary on gender inclusion and fewer who are holdouts from the old boys’ club.