Three ways to propel more women to the top of business schools

Gender balance needs a rethink of which subjects are ‘serious’, says Kellogg’s Sally Blount
Sally Blount, dean of Kellogg, is one of only 10 women to lead a top-50 US business school © FT

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In the 2016 Financial Times MBA rankings, only two of the top 25 schools have female deans. For the top 100 schools, the figure is 16. What can we do about it?

First, let us agree to end the implicit bias that studying finance and economics is serious, but studying management or marketing is less so.

Both perspectives matter, it is an issue of balance. Few business leaders I meet regret not having studied more economics in business school, but they often wish they had better understood how central management would be to their roles.

As interest grows in what the press often refers to as behavioural economics (and some simply call psychology), the rational actor model (which posits that individual decision-making is driven solely by information and logic) is receiving less attention in favour of a more nuanced understanding of human behaviour.

This is important because granting greater status to subjects in business schools that rely on psychology is key to breaking the deanship glass ceiling. Management and marketing departments have long led the field in the proportion of female academics they employ. According to data from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, 36 per cent of faculty in management and marketing departments are currently women compared to only 22 per cent in finance, operations and economics.

Perhaps it is no surprise that last year, when we gathered the 10 women who lead a top-50 US business school, eight out of 10 of us came from management and the ninth came from marketing.

Second, we need to get serious about professional development. Most professors’ training still follows an apprenticeship model where it is believed that in working alongside experienced academics, a young scholar will absorb the lessons needed to succeed.

But this model results in a low success rate and many schools find that at tenure review, male academics are more likely to get through than women or those from minority backgrounds. As data-driven academics, we need to combat the inefficiency and implicit bias of this process.

The same is true for leadership development. While we all teach MBA students, most of us do not actually have an MBA, and few have ever sat in on our colleagues’ courses, much less received thoughtful feedback on our management skills. As a result, many academics do not have an understanding of what it takes to run an organisation, so many lessons are learned on-the-job in the dean suite.

Higher education cannot afford such expensive lessons given the transformational forces we face: growing competition, downward price pressure, changing customer preferences and few economies of scale (at least for face-to-face learning). Instead, we need to practise what we teach and actively invest in developing leaders — both male and female.

Third, we need to increase the flow of women into our degree programmes. Today, women are under-represented in our MBA and PhD programmes, holding only 30-40 per cent of the slots depending on the specific field, degree programme and school.

The weak pipeline is one reason why women fail to become senior academics. But there are structural problems as well, such that once a woman starts a PhD she is less likely to make it to tenure: the timing of tenure often coincides with core child-bearing years and only a small pool of academic jobs exist in a particular city. When dual career issues intervene, women often compromise and take easier-to-find teaching positions.

To have any hope of more balance at the highest levels, we need to feed the pipeline with more women to overcome the structural seepage, break down implicit biases and get serious about professional development for faculty.

The writer is dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

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