How Business Schools Can Help Close the Gender Gap – Harvard Business Review

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Elevating the quantitative performance of women in business school can help increase the representation of talented women in finance, consulting, consumer technology, which are also typically more lucrative. To do this, female instructors are key. While women’s grades in quantitative courses are 11% of a standard deviation lower than that of men on average, when they are taught by female instructors, their performance improves by 7.7%. The authors found that female instructors increased female students’ interest and performance expectations in quantitative courses and are viewed as role models by female students. When women perform higher in “quant” courses, it results in more gender-healthy pipelines for senior management positions.

It’s no secret that women are under-represented in high-paying jobs in management. While numbers vary across industries, a recent survey in the financial services sector found that while women represented 58% of human resources, 46% of marketing, and 35% of legal executive roles, they held only 13% of technology, 17% of finance and 21% of operations executive roles. Unfortunately, gender pay gaps arise because the management occupations with fewer women typically pay more. How does the gender imbalance across occupations happen and can it be corrected?

Because business school enrollment is fairly balanced in the U.S., with women making up 43 to 47 percent of the business student body, in our study we turned our attention to the differences in academic achievement of male and female students at a top undergraduate business program. Our empirical analyses use the grades of 6,312 undergraduate students at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, in the 2005–2018 graduating classes. We focused on students’ academic performance in the introductory courses of the core curriculum, where coursework is mandatory and students are randomly assigned to different sections of a course. We also conducted a survey of current undergraduate business students to assess their expectations, interests, and perceptions across different types of courses. What we found was that the gender gap takes root in quantitative courses, where women, on average, score 11% of a standard deviation less than men.

Why should a man and a woman, otherwise similar in their academic aptitudes, family background, and other demographics, perform differently in business school classes? One could argue that men innately prefer quantitative courses and careers, whereas women innately prefer non-quantitative ones; and that this drives the differences. It could also be that students hold gender stereotypes and believe that women do worse in “quant” and better in “poet” courses, which affects their motivation and interest, and then affects their performance.

Our research offers support for the stereotype hypothesis, and not the innate preference hypothesis. We found that female instructors increased women’s interest and performance expectations in the quant courses, and also increase female students’ actual performance. That students’ academic performance in a subject changes based on instructor gender negates the innate preference hypothesis. At the same time, our survey indicates that female instructors teaching quant courses are more likely to be seen as inspirational role models by women. These findings suggest a gender stereotype process for the gender gap decreasing in quant courses when there is a female faculty — with the female faculty serving as powerful exemplars who challenge gender stereotypes and increase student achievement.

Female instructors are a possible silver-bullet to closing the academic performance gap: While women’s grades in quantitative courses are 11% of a standard deviation lower than that of men on average, when they are taught by female instructors, their performance improves by 7.7%. Supporting why we think female students underperform in the first place, we found that female instructors increased female students’ interest and performance expectations in quantitative courses and are viewed as role models by female students.

Business schools have long intuited that representation can help combat student self-doubt by providing a successful counterexample to the stereotype. Our research provides some evidence that not only is this true, but that by specifically employing more female instructors who can teach quantitative courses, business schools can make significant cracks in the glass ceiling. We would advise, however, that female faculty themselves are subject to bias in teaching evaluations, especially in quant courses, because of the very stereotypes that they help fight. As such, business schools not only need to have policies in place to help female students but also to help female faculty. Besides hiring more female faculty, gender stereotypes may also be countered by taking active steps to have more female speakers, alumni events, student leaders, club presidents, teaching assistants, etcetera.

Elevating the quantitative performance of women in business school can help increase the representation of talented women in finance, consulting, consumer technology, which are also typically more lucrative. In addition, recruiters can hire and retain a more diverse workforce — and stop lamenting the lack of women. This will also result in more gender-healthy pipelines for senior management positions.

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