Jennifer Berdahl

Jennifer Berdahl is the first to hold the Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business, where she is developing a centre for gender and diversity in leadership.

Born in Eugene, Oregon, Prof Berdahl has a PhD in social psychology from the University of Illinois and worked for the American Association of University Women, the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and Rotman School of Management before joining Sauder.

Prof Berdahl’s appointment at Sauder this month was accompanied by a £500,000 fundraising commitment by the Canadian school to increase the proportion of women on its MBA within five years. It currently has 33 per cent women enrolled in the class of 2016.

In her spare time, Prof Berdahl enjoys running, hiking and rock climbing. She also writes a blog, which features comment on a range of topics, including culture change at Harvard Business School and Miley Cyrus’ performance at the MTV Music Awards.

1. Why did you choose to work at Sauder?

Sauder values and supports my research on gender and diversity in business, which is still relatively rare in a business school setting. I now have a professorship to develop a centre around this research and to do outreach and teaching on it, which is great.

It’s easy to avoid controversial topics or to relegate them to personal anecdote and opinion. But just as we had to map the movement of the planets and the stars to figure out that the earth goes around the sun, it requires systematic and scientific study to understand the root causes of social inequality and what can change it.

2. What is an average day at work like?

An average day starts with reading the news, catching up on correspondence, trying to carve out a couple of hours for reading, writing, meeting someone new with shared interests, talking with collaborators about a research project, doing outreach (eg, media, expert witnessing or speaking), preparing for teaching and providing feedback on all my students’ work.

3. What are you enjoying the most?

Always being in a learning environment. It’s great to be a professor because your job is to learn and to teach that learning. I learn so much from my students, especially the international ones who bring different cultural perspectives. I learn from talking with people in business about their experiences and observations. I learn from other scholars, especially those in other disciplines. And I learn through my own research: it’s always fun to get surprising results that really make you think.

4. How would you summarise your research on gender dynamics?

My research has examined the role of sexual harassment in regulating masculinity and femininity at work. The term “sexual” misleads people into thinking this harassment is about sexual expression or gratification. Think “racial” harassment and you’ll get a better idea of what it’s about. Sexual harassment degrades, excludes or controls someone based on their sex.

I’ve studied “not man enough” harassment against men — think of the boy who gets called a “sissy” at school and bring that into an adult setting. It just takes one man as a target to communicate to all men how to fall in line, often at the expense and exclusion of women.

Sexual harassment against women is similarly targeted at women who challenge traditional sex roles, such as women who enter male dominated occupations and assertive, outspoken and ambitious women. Sexual harassment is like a weapon because it is an efficient way to tear someone down. There’s little they can do about it without making the situation worse for themselves: Organisations continue to be bad at understanding and handling this misconduct and it therefore continues to be a powerful force in maintaining sex segregation and inequality in the workplace.

5. What would you do if you were dean of a business school for the day?

If I had a magic wand, I’d make our school more accessible to the business community by moving it to the edge of campus and putting a car park underneath it. I’d also create an elegant space downtown for teaching and events. I’d hire more women faculty and support them, especially where they are most outnumbered. I’d guarantee funding to our PhD students for five years so they can be more competitive when they go on the job market. I’d introduce flexible work options for our staff and create a weekly coffee hour to foster more informal interaction among the members of our school.

6. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

Honesty is the best strategy (Prof. Joseph E. McGrath, 1927-2007).

7. How do you deal with male dominated environments?

[My method] has changed as my career has progressed. In graduate school it was a bit like being a daughter to good male advisers while being careful to avoid the bad uncles. Then it was a bit like being a sister to male colleagues but over time the fathers tended to favour the sons, who gained insider status, information, and opportunities for playing up that role. Now sometimes there’s the feeling that even though I’m relatively senior or established, I’m still not a real “contender” or equal to men at my stage in the eyes of some. Probably being a feminist researcher (which makes me scary or untrustworthy to some) and/or a mother (which makes some dismiss my focus or priorities) makes it worse.

Of course along the way I’ve had amazing male colleagues and supporters too. I suppose the way I’ve dealt with being a woman in a male dominated environment it is by studying it. I’ve come to embrace a compassionate take on things, to understand how structures and identities encourage individual behaviour to form a collective pattern, even if that pattern is not the goal. It’s not really personal but has personal consequences. This has helped me distance myself from some discouraging experiences while also helping me advocate for change.

8. What is your favourite business book?

Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s classic Men and Women of the Corporation is a must read. Some of my favourite quotes are:

“It is one of the prevailing ironies of modern corporate life that the closer to the top of the organisation, the more traditional and non-‘modern’ does the system look.” (pg. 118).

“A number of human and humane values tend to be developed in the absence of opportunity: an emphasis on peer solidarity, a sense that work isn’t everything, a questioning of the meaning of ‘success.’ But great opportunity — the promise of ever-increasing status and power — can breed competitiveness, an instrumental orientation toward relationships, a politically generated focus upward in the organisation, and an excessive absorption in work that can threaten such outside institutions as the family.” (p. 163)

9. What are your top tips for networking?

Seek out people you genuinely like and respect, based on characteristics that aren’t skin-deep. Mentor and empower those who are junior, support and lean on those who are peers and seek advice from those who are senior.

10. What are your future plans?

Developing the centre for gender and diversity in leadership at UBC Sauder. I’ve convened a group of scholars and practitioners to study organisational norms and practices that valorise masculinity and explore how to change or disrupt them, and I plan to write a book that summarises what we know to date about the leaks in the pipeline to leadership for women and what can be done to patch them.

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