To Increase Gender Diversity, We Need to Go Back to School
B-schools and companies need to stop confining discussions of gender to women-centric events and instead normalize gender diversity throughout their institutions.
When your company’s human resources problems attract the attention of a famous politician, you know you’re in trouble. At a rare public appearance a few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton spoke about the need for more women “at any table . . . where decisions are made” -- and called out Uber by name over those recent accusations of a culture of sexism in its workplace.
Uber’s recently released “diversity report” has done little to assuage the concerns of critics, as it shows that close to 80 percent of the company’s leadership is male. Yet Uber isn’t alone in this regard, and many people have pointed out that its numbers are not that different from those at other tech companies.
Indeed, our research here at Babson College Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership shows that gender diversity is a problem throughout the startup world. Only 15 percent of VC-funded companies have a woman on their executive team, and a mere 3 percent have a woman CEO. Although women are gaining ground, men are still 50 percent more likely than women to become entrepreneurs.
This lack of diversity isn’t bad just for women; it’s bad for business. Numerous studies have shown that greater gender diversity on boards and in corporate leadership positions is associated with greater profitability and higher stock values.
How do we increase the number of women entrepreneurs and executives? Part of the solution is to revamp the educational pipeline that shapes future talent. We need to train students of all backgrounds and genders to envision women as CEOs, entrepreneurs and innovators, and to understand how gender dynamics affect their teams, products -- and bottom line.
As the training ground for tomorrow’s leaders, business schools and university business programs play an important role in setting the tone. Yet we often present an outdated vision of business leadership. Research shows that women are marginalized throughout business school, from the language used in classrooms to the makeup of the faculty, to the representations of entrepreneurship in academic papers and case studies.
That needs to end.
The missing gender
As an example: Business students spend hours poring over case studies that disproportionately feature CEOs and key decision-makers who are men. One study found that only 11 percent of the 74 most popular cases from 2009 to 2015 had a woman protagonist, and nearly half failed to include any women at all.
Business students also learn primarily from men, since typically only 15 percent to 25 percent of professors at top business schools are women. These disparities present future CEOs, entrepreneurs and managers with a vision of business leadership that is almost exclusively male.
That's unfortunate because, in today’s economy, gender acumen is a requisite leadership skill. Understanding gender is essential for optimizing relationships with employees, customers and colleagues. We expect MBA programs to expose students to a variety of business sectors and experiences, ranging from entrepreneurship and corporate leadership, to finance and marketing. Shouldn’t gender be as important as race, ethnicity and other dimensions of diversity?
For business schools that want to lead the way on gender, the first step is to take stock of how the institution currently represents itself. At Babson, we’ve analyzed the diversity of the case studies used in our business school core-curriculum, as well as the speakers and panelists featured at major events and the students participating in important programs and leadership roles.
That analysis has covered such criteria as:
- The diversity of the institution’s faculty, administrators, speakers, mentors, and student leaders
- How gender is represented in the curriculum and language used in the classroom
- How professors identify case studies, journal articles and other teaching materials that present gender diversity
To turn things around, we've:
- Reached out to professors to help them identify good case studies and articles.
- Normalized gender diversity as part of the curriculum, rather than confining discussions of gender to "women-centric" events and activities
- Required that school-funded events and conferences represent women in panels and as keynote speakers
Former, current and prospective students should be asking these same questions of their own business schools. Our review, for instance, helped identify areas where we are now making a concerted effort to promote a more inclusive view of business leadership -- and where we could do more.
We've created a database of case studies featuring women protagonists for faculty to use in developing their courses. And we've worked hard on achieving gender balance in school panels and speakers.
But Babson's efforts are hardly the sum total of the gender-balance efforts going on today: There are many ways business schools are promoting gender inclusivity, from revamping admissions and financial aid to changing curricula and facilitating discussions around gender.
In the long run, it’s important that schools (and companies) stop confining discussions of gender to women-centric events and material and begin to normalize gender diversity throughout their institutions and activities. Studies show that when business lessons and research feature women or discuss gender, they are often targeted to women or identified as being exclusively about gender or diversity.
Instead, information on gender should be a natural part of a comprehensive business school education. It should be worked into the core curriculum, as well as be a part of targeted optional events and activities.
Companies might benefit from a similar approach that targets everyone.
Ultimately, change has to start at the beginning of the pipeline, or else we’ll continue to replicate those same traditional imbalances. Gender equity isn’t just a problem for us to solve, it’s an opportunity for us to lead. If schools innovate around how we understand and teach gender and prepare future executives and entrepreneurs for a more inclusive world, maybe the next hot startup will have diversity baked into its DNA.
Susan Duffy, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL) at Babson College. The CWEL is a collaborative learning laboratory dedicated to investigating, educating and celebrating women entrepreneurial leaders of all kinds. Duffy, who launched the undergraduate program in entrepreneurship at Simmons College, was executive director of the International Council for Small Business at The George Washington University. She is also the former co-owner of a commercial construction company and of a Ho-Lee-Chow Chinese Food franchise restaurant.