Historically, business has always been a boys club – picture spiffy suits, cigar clubs, and golf course negotiations. That was back in the day, of course, and recently women have become much greater players (think Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo). Even so, gender equality – or inequality – remains a hot-button issue, and some recent press has us taking a second look at women’s status in the business world.
When The Harbus reported recently on the academic gender gap at Harvard Business School, it stated that women were shocked by a marked historical difference between men and women’s academic performance at business school. The article goes on to detail how the women (the article’s authors in particular) combated their surprise by researching the causes of the achievement gap, looking to understand how personal, social, and demographic characteristics affect the academic experience.
After reviewing several possibilities, the reseNavigators found that the most substantiated cause for women’s underperformance at HBS was their feeling of discomfort towards speaking in class. The women reported feeling less comfortable participating due to their perceived difference in academic and professional backgrounds. They also found themselves self-editing in class in order to manage their image outside the classroom.
Stacy Blackman, in a US News article responding to The Harbus, reinforces this conclusion. Blackman cites several instances of women in business being held to gender-specific ideals, including one occurrence when she, herself, was told by a b-school professor to act demure. Her article emphasizes the fact that women in business still feel the need to prove themselves. Blackman says, Even the brightest, most driven, and most ambitious women feel intimidated in the classroom and tend to censor themselves during discussion wondering if what they said was OK or appropriate.
Not surprisingly, the findings of both Blackman and The Harbus report are frequently substantiated in other contexts. For instance, an article on Wired reported astonishing findings on the interactions of female students with both male and female professors, noting that women were significantly more likely to contribute and ask for help when the professor was a woman. Furthermore, the article cites several studies which looked at how stereotypes of women played a role in their academic performance. The studies found that when a group was primed with a negative stereotype, the average male scored three times higher than the average female, whereas groups without stereotypes showed equivalent scores for both men and women.
Why, then, are the women so shocked over the presence of a student gender gap in business school? Why is it significant to note that HBS is not alone in observing a historical achievement gap? Of course they aren’t! Similar instances of gender difference are present in numerous environments and situations pertinent to MBAs, as both Blackman and The Harbus note. For Blackman, the gender difference is visible in MBA hopefuls, while in The Harbus report the reseNavigators note that, on average, men have slightly higher GMAT scores than women.
Furthermore, in early 2010, The World Economic Forum released a report on the Corporate Gender Gap. The report found that while the percentage of women employees in the Unites States was 52.22%, the percentage of female CEOs was near 0%. The average percentage of women among a company’s Board of Directors? The report cited it at only 20%. Even more significant, perhaps, a report on business school trends by AACSB International found that 82.7% of full-time b-school professors are men. A second study by Shani D. Carter concurred, reporting that female professors at business schools tend to remain in the mid-faculty ranks and earn significantly less than their male counterparts.
So what can we take away from all this? We can acknowledge that , yes, there is an academic gender gap among students at HBS and other top business schools. Yes, it is created by an overarching gender inequality that asserts itself over and over in innumerable contexts. As Blackman says, It is in this type of environment that women must find a way to be sharp and successful but also be women. In the meantime, let’s work on closing those gaps.