Making Business School Leadership Gender-Inclusive
- Business schools can take steps to dismantle their masculine social structures by being more transparent, inclusive, and equitable.
- To bring consistency to performance evaluations, academic leaders can streamline metrics, bring in new rating methods, appoint advocates, and train evaluators.
- School administrators can also promote gender-inclusive leadership by embracing diversity in research topics and mentoring women early in their careers.
Across many sectors, value statements regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have taken center stage. In our own field of higher education, institutions have started placing great emphasis on diversifying their faculty and their student bodies. However, disparities remain. At business schools in particular, we see a glaring gap in the representation of women at the leadership level.
According to AACSB’s 2022–23 Staff Compensation and Demographics Survey, women make up 40.3 percent of tenure-track faculty, but that’s where their progression stalls. Barely more than a quarter (25.7 percent) of full professors and fewer than one-third (31 percent) of business school deans are women. This underrepresentation at the highest levels affects all aspects of the business school milieu: the diversity of our students, the dynamics of our MBA classrooms, the quality of advice we offer to organizations, and the signals we send to donors and other stakeholders.
While business schools have made gradual progress, the pace of change has been glacial. Despite being highly qualified, women faculty in business schools often face gender bias, are underappreciated for their expertise and service, and are overlooked for top administrative roles.
The situation in business schools mirrors the reality of the corporate world, where women also report feeling undervalued and overlooked. For years, leadership development programs in both academia and industry have taken a “fix the women” approach of changing women so they fit into the business world. These programs encourage women to network, find mentors, lean in, and overcome challenges.
We need to reckon with an obvious truth—it’s not women who need fixing. Instead, our systems require a transformation.
When business schools run DEI programs for corporate partners, we encourage industry leaders to implement gender equity standards. As business school leaders and decision-makers, we must align our institutions with the same standards. We must shift our focus from a “fix the women” mentality to a “fix the system” strategy. Our deans, department chairs, and full professors must champion decisive, systemwide changes and lead transformation by example.
What can we do to achieve this transformation—to address persistent inequity in business school leadership? The 11 of us tackled that question in a recent article in the Journal of Management, and here we share some of our conclusions. Specifically, we highlight three common institutional barriers and explore implementable solutions.
The Existing Power Structures
The first problem: Business schools have masculine social structures. Like many institutions, business school cultures are shaped by societal factors and steered by those who hold power. While the number of women in dean and associate dean roles is increasing, women still make up only a third of all business school deans. This ongoing lack of gender representation in formal leadership roles means that small groups of men often wield disproportionate influence at business schools.
Furthermore, the informal business school power structures—such as the faculty committees that control resources and make decisions—also tend to be overwhelmingly male-dominated. The few women who make it onto these committees face a catch-22 situation. If they display leadership traits, they risk being disliked; if they don’t, their competence and worthiness are questioned.
We must shift our focus from a “fix the women” mentality to a “fix the system” strategy.
The solution: Reshape the social structure to make it more equitable. Business schools can systematically incorporate greater gender diversity and inclusion into their practices, processes, and cultures. Below, we outline four steps that we urge administrators to take toward this goal. After each step, we identify the leaders primarily responsible for carrying out the tasks.
- Be proactive with data. Consistently monitor, document, and publicly disclose gender representation data at every level of career progression. Develop and set into motion a comprehensive strategy to achieve gender equality. (Deans and department chairs)
- Maintain transparency in appointments. Improve the transparency and accountability around the selection process for distinguished professorships by conducting regular and in-depth reviews of these roles. (Deans and private donors)
- Create an inclusive culture. Build a welcoming environment that acknowledges and celebrates achievements universally. To ensure that there is inclusive and equitable representation of male and female faculty accomplishments, monitor the school’s marketing efforts. Pay attention to what is displayed in physical spaces such as hallways and digital spaces such as college websites. (Faculty governance committee members, department chairs, and senior professors)
- Implement equitable caregiving policies. Introduce policies that are fair and considerate to all genders. Continuously assess the effectiveness of these policies and adjust as necessary. (Deans, department chairs, and senior professors)
An Inconsistency in Evaluations
The second problem: Schools take a muddled approach to performance evaluations. This is true whether they’re considering research, teaching, or service.
The process of assessing research productivity can be inconsistent, subjective, and opaque, leading to biases that disadvantage women more than men. The yardsticks used for annual reviews and promotion committees can vary widely.
Further, perceptions of productivity can be skewed when promotion committees rely on journal lists that may be outdated or do not represent a comprehensive set of research outlets. Frustratingly, the work that women complete is often undervalued, overlooked, or misattributed to male authors. Moreover, in the confines of closed-door, male-dominated committee meetings, standards can be applied inconsistently across faculty members, creating further opportunities for gender bias.
Teaching evaluations present another challenging area. Alarmingly, students tend to rate female faculty lower than their male counterparts, even when professors deliver the same content and use similar teaching methods.
The process of assessing research productivity can be inconsistent, subjective, and opaque, leading to biases that disadvantage women more than men.
Finally, service performance is seldom clearly defined or standardized. Faculty evaluations often are based on arbitrary and shifting criteria, such as professionalism or collegiality, which can serve as proxies for likability. Such subjective criteria disproportionately affect female faculty more than their male colleagues. These metrics can derail careers because they cause women faculty to feel isolated and sometimes lead them to produce fewer scientific contributions.
The solution: Develop standard performance measures and appoint overseers to ensure fairness. Again, we offer four suggestions and identify the leaders who can implement recommended changes:
- Streamline performance metrics. Clearly define and measure faculty performance in alignment with the strategic goals of the department, the school, and the university. (Deans and department chairs)
- Develop and deploy behaviorally anchored rating scales for evaluating research, teaching, and service. These scales could give several examples of performance across different effectiveness levels. Make these scales accessible to all faculty members, both present and future. (Deans and department chairs)
- Establish justice advocates. Appoint independent, well-trained individuals to oversee procedural fairness on promotion and tenure committees. Much like graduate school representatives who attend doctoral dissertation defenses, these observers can ensure that only the predetermined criteria are used in tenure, promotion, and resource allocation discussions. The presence of these individuals can help foster a fair, transparent, and equitable business school environment. (Faculty governance committee members, deans, and department chairs)
- Train evaluators. Provide education about best practices to the people who evaluate performance. Teach them to avoid using ambiguous or undefined standards such as “professionalism.” (Faculty governance committee members, department chairs, and senior professors)
A Dearth of Gender-Inclusive Research
The third problem: There is an underrepresentation of research topics that affect women in the workplace. Research in business disciplines has frequently overlooked the importance of gender inclusiveness. For example, gender is often used as a statistical control rather than being seen as a substantive explanatory variable.
Women also generally are viewed as a monolithic group, which overlooks the fact that women from different races or backgrounds might have different concerns and experiences. Similarly, our research samples are predominantly male, especially when studying leadership or justice, which prevents us from building a truly inclusive body of knowledge.
We must become more aware of biases against women, understand the origins and workings of these biases—and, most importantly, figure out how to mitigate them.
It’s not only in research that women’s work is sidelined. Women’s contributions are often disregarded or compared unfavorably to predominantly male-centric norms in business education and other industries.
The solution: Pay more attention to women’s distinctive insights and experiences. Here are four specific suggestions:
- Embrace diversity in business research. Champion gender inclusivity when presented in research designs, measurement scales, and conclusions. Encourage the development and use of theories that consider the realities of both women and men in the workplace. Make room for a broader variety of perspectives when theorizing about professional life. (Editors, reviewers, and authors)
- Recognize the significance of gender and race. Instead of treating these attributes merely as statistical controls, incorporate them as substantive variables of interest in theoretical discussions. (Editors, reviewers, and authors)
- Invest in research related to women’s experiences in the workplace. Support studies that explore unique aspects of women’s health and well-being. Use these research findings to inform the creation of more inclusive policies. (Universities and professional associations)
- Provide active sponsorship for women in the early or middle stages of their careers. Such sponsorship can open doors to research possibilities, editorial board memberships, and tasks that can lead to promotion. (Deans, department chairs, and senior professors)
Dismantling the Barriers
As business school leaders, we have a duty to reshape our field to be more equitable and welcoming to all. While our industry has made significant strides forward, barriers and biases continue to hinder women from reaching leadership positions. We must become more aware of these biases, understand the origins and workings of these biases—and, most importantly, figure out how to mitigate them.
Such improvements not only benefit underrepresented groups such as women and people of color, but they also enhance the entire ecosystem. Transparency, standardization in evaluations, and the inclusion of gender-related scientific evidence will lead to more fruitful career paths. They also will uplift our entire community.