MBAs and business education programmes in general still lack a real sense of gender, specifically the differences in how men and women operate and experience working life.
Does it matter? It could be argued that despite all the social change of the past 40 years, the UK has kept an old-fashioned workplace culture, dominated by the male approach to working practices and where there are unspoken rules about what belongs in an efficient, hard-nosed workplace.
The introduction of flexible working is a good example. Organisations have had to embrace the principle and respond to new legislation, but research shows that employers often favour part-time working instead of flexible working.
Childcare issues are seen as an indication of a lack of commitment, with the result that both men and women who work part-time are being overlooked for new opportunities and promotions. Once people step into the office they are expected to leave any other responsibilities behind and become the “effective employee” regardless of cost to the family and personal wellbeing.
So, sticking to a male outlook might just seem practical and certainly simpler for business schools when delivering programmes that set out the “right” ways to behave. But if business schools are really to claim that they understand business, the engines of the workplace, while getting the best from people, then they need to recognise the existence of gender differences. There is an imbalance in perspective at present that is limiting – particularly at a time when so many organisations and sectors are in the process of rethinking and rebuilding and need new approaches and styles of talent management to differentiate.
There are particular benefits for women in having specific recognition of their everyday experiences – for example, that female leaders do not always get things done by imitating a masculine approach and that it is all right to step back and influence in less visible and confrontational ways. More understanding and acknowledgment of gender differences in business school programmes can only be motivational for women in terms of careers and in encouraging their greater engagement with business schools.
Organisations – needing to get more from fewer resources, needing new ideas and opportunities that can bring more sustainability and security – can be helped to unlock this potential among female managers who feel more appreciated, understood and recognised.
Business schools need to think about content, but they also need to consider access – especially when it comes to overseas engagement where women live in countries with cultural barriers that make studying overseas impossible. Brunel runs a PhD without residence initiative in Bahrain with a local university. About half of those on the programme are women – more than would be expected – demonstrating a need and the potential for this kind of study option.
What is clear from experience is that women do not have an appetite for a specific MBA programme targeted at women. The value is in learning alongside men and appreciating each other’s perspective. There is potential for more to be done on breaking down outdated workplace cultures, raising awareness among leaders and managers about attitudes to the roles women and men have at home and how this interacts with their working life – as part of a process that can have a great deal to offer an organisation.
Business schools have been guilty of following a model that is based on ironing out differences and the ideal of the solely work-focused (probably male) manager. Business schools now need to discover if this model has stifled innovation and individuals’ potential.
The author is head of Brunel Business School, Brunel University.