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Afflicted by gender fatigue, MBA programs perpetuate a traditional masculine model of executive leadership, while female enrollment lags

May 1, 2010

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

A striking anomaly of MBA programs in recent decades has been the failure of female enrollment to rise much above the one third mark, even as women have come to constitute close to half the students in medical schools and law schools. In higher-ranked business schools, in fact, women's numbers have failed to rise above 30%.
Even though schools have made special efforts to attract women through such initiatives as women's scholarships, women-only courses, or part-time MBAs for mothers, a report in the current issue of Academy of Management Learning and Education concludes that the female enrollment numbers are unlikely to change significantly without a concerted effort to increase gender awareness across the entire MBA curriculum.
Further, in educating future business leaders based on a "masculine model" which "impacts who can be a successful business person," MBA programs bear a large measure of responsibility for perpetuating male dominance of the business world itself, the study's authors suggest. 
What the schools must do, argue Elisabeth K. Kelan of King's College London and Rachel Dunkley Jones, a freelance researcher, is make every "course a gender-aware course...Business students would then not think about gender as a special issue and be tempted to disregard it, learning rather that working with gender diversity is part of what it means to do that gender diversity and inclusion are not optional extras, but rather are seen as central to all business processes."
Why the need for such a "fundamental rethinking of how future managers are educated"? Because, the authors argue, "the masculine culture of business schools combined with the enduring paradigm of Think Manager -- Think Male" puts women "in the uncomfortable position of having to act like 'surrogate males' in order to fit in." And essential to this state of affairs is a prevailing assumption "that gender inequality has either been eradicated or remains only marginally relevant for the experiences of women."
Comments Dr. Kelan: "When it comes to gender, business education presents a paradox. On the one hand, any number of studies have documented that women confront systematic discrimination in business schools and that masculine values, such as competitiveness, individualism, and instrumentalism, predominate not just in the classroom but in extracurricular life. On the other hand, some recent research suggests that this culture is less estranging for women that one might suppose; for example, one study found that most women in MBA programs do not think gender imbalance affected their own performance and don't want to be singled out for special treatment."
This sense of paradox emerges in a series of in-depth interviews that the authors carried out among 20 full-time students in a top-ranking MBA institution. The students were evenly divided between men and women and among four places of origin -- North America, the U.K., continental Europe, and elsewhere. The subjects ranged in age from 26 to 35 and had each lived in at least two countries and in one case as many as eight. Interviews lasted about an hour on average and were not explicitly framed as an inquiry about gender but rather as an probing of the experiences and aspirations of MBA students male and female.
What emerges from the interviews is that, while the student's may view the school's 70-30 gender imbalance as regrettable, they tend to regard this simply as a reflection of the realities of business leadership in the world at large. And while sexism is quite real in the school's academic and social spheres, it tends to be constrained enough so as not to call  forth any strong response.
Says Kelan: "It's somewhat like a low-grade infection -- seemingly not serious enough to go to the doctor about but leaving the body in a chronically weakened condition."
In the words of the study, "Playing the gender card might then be seen as at odds with what these young women are trained to be. They are supposed to be future leaders of organizations, and the MBA is tailored toward providing them with confidence to succeed in that endeavor. Acknowledging the salience of gender has no place in this world: to do so would suggest that individual ability is not the only thing that determines success."
In sum, women "have to ignore the possibility that gender can function as a structuring mechanism in society, as it would endanger their self-perception. For men, in contrast, downplaying the importance of gender may be a way to show their tolerance, open-mindedness, and support for gender equality...For men as well as women, the preferred strategy is to insist that gender does not matter."
Kelan and Jones concede that this view is not special to business schools and see it linked to a "postfeminist" phenomenon that they call "gender fatigue." Recent studies across a range of organizations, they note, suggest that "this phenomenon is widespread. They show that women and men do not like to talk about gender, as it seems passe."
How should business schools proceed? While a thoroughgoing change is needed, the emphasis should be not on dramatic strokes but on "small baby steps...incremental change which gradually overcomes the barriers to women's success without provoking a defensive and thus counterproductive response. That would mean that, rather than having to accept 'the way the world IS,' future leaders would be equipped to play the masculine game of business in ways that subtly change the rules."
 The article, "Gender and the MBA," is in the spring 2010 issue (March-May) of Academy of Management Learning and Education. This peer-reviewed publication is published quarterly by the academy, which, with about 18,000 members in 102 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The academy's other publications are the The Academy of Management Journal, The Academy of Management Review, and Academy of Management Perspectives.
Media Coverage:
Financial Times. Gender issues should be integral to MBA courses. (Monday, July 12, 2010).
The Globe & Mail. MBA's: Female-Friendly or Not?. (Tuesday, November 02, 2010).

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