Supporting Women in Business School

Supporting Women in Business School

Business schools are in the unique position of addressing gender equality challenges not only for the current and future workforce but also within their own work environments.

Stories around greater gender equality, inclusion, and opportunity seem to permeate the media on a daily basis, no longer only gracing headlines around special events like International Women’s Day that passed earlier this month. These conversations are particularly poignant within business schools that find themselves in a unique position regarding this topic. Not only is achieving gender equality a challenge within the workforce that business schools aim to address by preparing future business leaders who are competent, ethical, and open to creating working environments that are accommodating to all employees, but business schools themselves struggle to create such environments for their female faculty and staff who remain underrepresented due to many of the same obstacles that women face in the business world.

During AACSB’s Deans Conference in Miami, Florida, last month, I had the opportunity to sit in on a session on gender challenges in academia, presented by Camelia Ilie of INCAE Business School and Sarah Gardial of the University of Iowa—two female business school deans. One facet of the discussion centered on what business schools and universities could be doing more of in order to create environments that are more accommodating to women in reaching their goals within academia, such as achieving tenure or securing leadership positions. Creating more positive work-life balance is mentioned quite often within such debates. Many conclude that women face greater challenges in achieving balance because pregnancy and greater expectations of child-rearing responsibilities often fall in their hands. As a result, many women have been compelled to step away from their professional careers. For female employees who leave their jobs temporarily, they come back often lagging behind their counterparts who remained working; others may decide to never come back or to change their career paths to better align with responsibilities of family life.

As timely as these conversations may seem, discussion around gender equality issues have been occurring for at least 50 years, with some notable research going back to 1969 by Helen Astin with her book The Woman Doctorate in America: Origins, Career, and Culture. Although much has improved in educational and degree attainment among women since the book’s publication, the challenges around career development and progression remain largely the same as Astin describes decades ago, many of them regarding the greater family demands that fall onto women. In her book Astin proposes suggestions for alleviating some of the challenges women faced then, including better options for part-time graduate study, part-time professional employment with full benefits, job-sharing, and public support for quality childcare. These suggestions that were made nearly half a century ago are today, within many countries, still regarded as radical.

A number of business schools are visibly addressing gender equality within their own policies. For example, at Lagos Business School, work-life balance is presented within the institution’s value proposition to its employees and is part of the school’s aim to create “policies and structures that will enhance [employees’] ability to juggle the pressures of life.” Some of these policies include on-site childcare and professional nanny services and allowing nursing mothers a shorter work day for three months upon return from maternity leave. Fathers are also entitled to a shorter paternity leave.

It is important to note that not just women with children face such challenges. At a meeting hosted by the Council of Graduate Schools last summer, Maresi Nerad of the Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education shared some of her research on PhD career paths, which found that spouses have a greater influence on female career paths than do children. A study called PhDs—Ten Years Later found that the majority of female PhD holders partnered with someone who held a PhD, JD, or MD. The research showed that dual-career couples experienced challenges after degree completion, during the job search process. The study also found significant differences between men and women during this time; for example, women were more concerned that their partners also had a good job opportunity than were the men.

"[T]he new generation of academics—which includes a more diverse applicant pool who come with commitments outside the workplace—will require new strategies for recruitment, along with different types of incentives."

Many business schools and universities are addressing challenges associated with dual-career couples through assistance and placement programs. A 2014 article in The Daily Texan shares some of the trends and practices regarding dual hiring at the University of Texas at Austin. Between August 2008 and June 2014, the university hired 58 dual-career couples. This initiative not only served as an efficient recruitment tool and resulted in great hires for the university but also allowed for couples to live and work in the same city; one couple commuted between Austin, Texas, and New York City for five years before the wife accepted a position with her husband’s affiliated university. Londa Schiebinger, director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, remarked on the subject, “Hiring dual-career academic couples is one of the biggest challenges facing higher education. … It is not only a tool to recruit top academic talent; it is also a way to attract and retain top women and minority faculty members.” She continues that the new generation of academics—which includes a more diverse applicant pool who come with commitments outside the workplace—will require new strategies for recruitment, along with different types of incentives.

As working couples begin to explore new solutions for supporting each other in achieving professional goals, while balancing family life, we may see less traditional relationship dynamics emerge. For example, Erika James, dean of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, has openly shared her research on and personal experience as a commuter couple. In an interview with Fortune magazine, she says, “You have got to make the calls and decisions that work for you. In my own situation, I am married and have two children and my husband and I have been commuting off and on for the better part of 20 years. … He is an executive at [Exxon Mobil], which doesn’t have locations in the same places where there are great business schools. So we have had to find a way to make that situation work.” According to research by the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University, couples like James and her husband account for 3–10 percent of the working U.S. population—a number that will likely continue to grow.

As AACSB International continues to encourage greater female representation and gender equality and inclusion initiatives across its network of schools, we hope the conversation helps create classrooms that empower young female students to pursue careers in business in addition to family aspirations, as well as continues to challenge business schools to create similar, supportive environments within their own campuses.