Research Roundup: April 2022

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Wednesday, April 27, 2022
By AACSB Staff
What’s driving the rise in women’s board participation, how mental stress is impacting enrollment, and why empathy is important to mentorship effectiveness.

More Women Join Boards—at Already Inclusive Firms

More women are now serving on the boards of U.S. companies. However, the companies making the greatest gains in this regard were already more diverse and inclusive to begin with, according to a forthcoming study in the Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis. Two researchers wanted to know whether public attention to issues of gender equity led to firms recruiting more women to their boards.

The study was authored by Mariassunta Giannetti of the Stockholm School of Economics and Tracy Wang of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis. The pair examined strength ratings for diversity policies, political leanings, and financial and corporate board data related to 34,283 directors from 5,936 U.S. public companies from 2005 to 2017. The researchers then created an “index of public attention,” using Google Trends data linked to the search term “gender equality.”

Their analysis revealed that greater public attention to gender inequities does compel companies to recruit board members from a larger pool of women. That said, so far, the greatest gains have been made at companies already committed to diversity. “The effect of public attention on these firms,” the co-authors write, “is likely to be driven by internal initiatives of the top management rather than by the external pressure from pro-diversity institutional investors.”

The push for gender equity on corporate boards has yet to effect as much change at companies with less inclusive cultures. “Public attention is a powerful force, but it also has its limitations,” explains Wang. “We find that increases in attention could lead to more polarization in firms’ responses. Companies that really need improvement in diversity tend to react negatively to heightened public attention.”

These findings could inspire future research on the impact of public attention on other dimensions of diversity, such as race. “Our results can inform the broader debate on diversity and shed light on the interventions that may lead to greater gender (or racial) equality in leadership positions,” Giannetti and Wang write. “To the extent that public attention can be induced by policymakers, increasing public awareness could be an alternative intervention to quotas and other affirmative action policies.”

MBAs Express Preference for Hybrid Formats

Although COVID-19 has changed higher education in myriad ways, the expectations and preferences of prospective MBA students have remained fairly steady, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s latest Prospective Students Survey. More than 40 percent of the 6,500 prospective students surveyed still largely favor traditional full-time on-campus MBA programs. The survey showed no increase in the number of respondents expressing a desire to enroll in primarily online MBA programs.

That said, the percentage of respondents who stated a preference for business programs delivered in hybrid formats increased to 20 percent in 2021, up from 14 percent in 2019. This increase occurred among prospective students interested in all types of programs, including full-time, executive, part-time, and flexible MBA programs.

Among respondents, consulting was still the most popular career choice—consistent with their top preference prior to the pandemic. However, the tech sector had gained ground, particularly among prospective students who identified as “career switchers.”

The number of respondents who stated a preference for business programs delivered in hybrid formats increased to 20 percent in 2021, up from 14 percent in 2019.

The pandemic has affected how far prospective students plan to travel for their educations. While programs in Western Europe and the U.S. remain popular targets for 39 percent of those surveyed, more candidates said that they plan to choose programs closer to home.

This was particularly true for candidates in Central and South Asia—the percentage of this group expressing a preference to study internationally declined from 89 percent in 2019 to 73 percent in 2021. The percentage of candidates in East and Southeast Asia who said they wanted to pursue international study declined from 92 percent to 87 percent in that same time period.

Overall, however, although the pandemic has changed some prospective student behavior, the perceived value of graduate management education remains strong, according to the report. “Consistent with pre-pandemic levels,” its authors emphasize, “candidates continue to see a graduate management education as a way to advance professionally and position themselves to achieve their goals.”

Mental Stress, Cost Lead to Enrollment Declines

Over the past six months, the increased mental stress that students have experienced during the pandemic has led many to consider taking a break from their programs. Thirty-six percent of undergraduate students and 40 percent of students in associate degree programs indicated that it was “difficult” or “very difficult” to stay enrolled in their programs during the 2021–22 academic year. This was especially true for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

These are some of the findings of a new report released jointly by the analytics firm Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, which is dedicated to increasing access to postsecondary education. The report is based on a survey conducted in the fall of 2021 of 11,227 adults in the U.S., aged 18 to 59. All survey respondents were high school graduates.

Although many current students are thinking of taking a break from their college programs, a significant portion of adults not currently enrolled in college indicated that they have considered enrolling in degree or certificate programs in the past two years.

Students who were thinking of suspending their pursuit of education, or not registering in a program at all, cited three reasons: mental health concerns, the difficulty of the coursework, and the cost of education. In fact, the cost of tuition was cited by more than half of those surveyed as a “very important” reason they stopped their programs or never enrolled.

With cost still being the most prominent barrier to education, many of the adults surveyed show greater interest in less expensive, shorter programs. Acting on that finding could help colleges reverse “alarming” enrollment declines due to the pandemic, says Courtney Brown, Lumina’s vice president for impact and planning. 

“To reverse this trend, we must understand students' perspectives, especially those of nontraditionally aged students,” says Brown. “This includes what barriers they face and the practices that support them.”

Circular Economy Creates More Sustainable SMEs

Six researchers have found that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can significantly boost their environmental performance by taking part in a circular economy (CE), a system that decouples economic growth from the consumption of finite resources.

The recent study, which appeared in the International Journal of Production Economics, had six co-authors. They included lead author Prasanta Dey of Aston Business School in the U.K., Chrysovalantis Malesios of the Agricultural University of Athens, and Soumyadeb Chowdhury of Toulouse Business School in France. The final three authors, all based in the U.K., include Krishnendu Saha of Birmingham City University, Pawan Budhwar of Aston, and Debashree De of the University of Essex.

The research team surveyed 100 SMEs in Greece, France, Spain, and the U.K. about CE adoption. After the survey was completed, the team organized focus groups. These groups comprised SME owners and managers, SME customers and suppliers, and policymakers in each country. 

The researchers found that SMEs in all four countries were likely to achieve higher environmental performance through CE adoption, with those in France making the greatest gains. The team also found that the SMEs in all four countries needed to improve their waste management strategies.

An SME’s customers and suppliers can exert a great deal of pressure to compel its leaders to adopt CE strategies, says Dey, a professor in operations and information management. That said, whether an SME improves the ways it recovers and reuses materials depends largely on its self-motivation and pressure by policymakers. In the end, each SME needs to take a “structured approach” to CE adoption, as it analyzes its sustainability performance, identifies issues and challenges, and seeks ways to “close the loop” in its supply chains.

The team sees potential for future research into the human resource side of CE, related to issues such as employee wellbeing, commitment, leadership, skills utilization, organizational resilience, and the development of sustainability-focused cultures within SMEs.

Empathetic Individuals Make More of Mentorship

Why do some high-performing employees blossom with the help of strong mentors, while others do not? It could depend on each employee’s ability to feel empathy for others, according to a new study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. The paper’s authors include Xiaoyu (Christina) Wang of Tongji University in Shanghai, Xiaotong (Janey) Zheng of Durham University Business School in the U.K., Yanjun Guan of both Durham University Business School and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Shuming Zhao of Nanjing University in China.

By helping employees cultivate empathy, organizations can make mentorship more effective, which in turn can improve employee retention, team performance, and leadership effectiveness.

The researchers conducted two studies. In the first, they surveyed more than 200 employees and their supervisors at a Chinese logistics company. In the second, they recruited 192 full-time employees in China to read several career mentoring scenarios and indicate their willingness to mentor the subordinate featured in each scenario.

Both studies revealed that supervisory mentors often prefer to work with higher performance protégés. However, if protégés lack empathetic qualities—if they cannot understand the perspectives of others—they might not take full advantage of mentorship. Furthermore, supervisors might view the costs of mentoring these individuals as greater than the benefits.

By helping employees cultivate empathy, the authors note, organizations can make mentorship more effective, which in turn can improve employee retention, team performance, and leadership effectiveness.

The co-authors “would like to draw the attention of senior managers in organizations to taking action to help their employees develop this relational competence,” whether through social events or formal training designed to help employees “imagine standing in their [supervisors’] shoes.” The authors conclude, “Given that high performers are organizations’ most important human capital, helping them obtain sufficient mentoring to advance their careers and contribute to the organization would be efficient resource utilization.”

The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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