Gender Equality: Do We Always Practice What We Preach?

When it comes to gender equality, despite all the headway made in recent decades, there’s a very real possibility that business schools still might not always practice what they preach.
Gender Equality

IT'S OBVIOUS FROM A WEALTH of research that age-old stereotypes continue to shape how women are regarded and treated in many organizational settings. Business schools ought to know this only too well, because they produce most of the literature that highlights as much.

There’s another reason, though, why they might be familiar with this unhappy truth: they could be just as likely to find evidence of it within their own working environments. This is an unpalatable but undeniable concern. When it comes to gender equality, despite all the headway made in recent decades, there’s a very real possibility that business schools still might not always practice what they preach.

We got a basic notion of the scope and repercussions of the problem when we interviewed dozens of junior, middle-ranking, and senior research staff across a range of faculties, disciplines, and fields in the U.K. and Europe. Carried out last year, our study encompassed several business schools. The picture that emerged was of a sphere in which damaging assumptions and prejudices can still be found.

A brief survey of some of the themes we consistently encountered should serve as a useful illustration. These themes are perhaps best described as unconscious biases, and they underline how easy it is for the deficiencies that underpin inequality to spread quietly through any organization—potentially to the point where they become not only institutionalized but central to everyday procedures.

Before we turn to our findings, though, we ought to address three important points, the first of which is why we embarked on our study. The simple answer is that we conducted it in response to the low number of female professors at universities in general. We didn’t set out with a journal paper or even a working paper in mind. We just wanted to learn a little more about the communities in which we and other women academics work. We’ve since presented our data and conclusions at numerous institutions.

Second, we must acknowledge that the business school community—and, for that matter, academia as a whole—has taken significant steps toward advancing the cause of gender equality. This is manifest in the greater representation of women enrolling, teaching, and even holding senior positions at business schools around the world. We don’t dispute this in any way.

Finally and relatedly, we need to stress that what follows doesn’t constitute a broad-brush attack on business schools. We don’t present these themes as established facts of life. We simply invite anyone associated with a business school—or any other faculty—to reflect on the below conclusions and to consider in all honesty whether the failings outlined are extant, to whatever degree, in their own places of work.

Unconscious Bias 1: Women Aren’t Men’s Intellectual or Technical Equals

Our study suggests this bias reveals itself in various ways, from facetious remarks to the paucity of respect and seriousness with which women’s ideas and opinions are met. One researcher we interviewed recalled being asked if she had received her PhD for bed-making. The upshot is that many women feel under intense pressure to demonstrate their competence again and again.

The problem was so rife across our sample that some interviewees even confessed to adopting a deeper tone of voice in a bid to be seen as more authoritative. “Guys can pick up the wrong message from a woman’s voice tone,” said one. “Women with lower voices tend to do better.”

Unconscious Bias 2: Women Are Better Suited to Support Roles

Many of the women we interviewed were tasked with providing care. Such duties are normally time-consuming, which means they distract from research, and are consonant with low status, which means they’re defined by supervisory rather than strategic responsibilities. A common complaint was that strategic senior management positions—and the kudos and wages that accompany them—are more likely to go to men.

Several of our respondents observed that support roles throughout academia frequently revolve around dealing with distressed students. Asked to outline the career-progression prospects of the average woman researcher, one interviewee said, “Exams tutor, admissions, senior tutor—any area where students are likely to cry.”

Unconscious Bias 3: Women Are Teachers, Not Researchers

Most of our respondents saw themselves as likely to be handed lower-level teaching duties. They argued that this could hark back to their perceived expertise in providing care—the “logic” being that younger students require nurturing—or that it might stem from a conviction that research is better left to men.

One unfortunate corollary of this bias is that students may themselves come to accept ingrained stereotypes, perpetuating a cycle that could stifle career enhancement. As one interviewee put it, “Fulfilling these [lower-level teaching] roles isn’t well recognised in promotion opportunities, when publications and grant income are what counts.”

Unconscious Bias 4: Women’s Top Priority Is—or Should Be—Family

A number of our respondents regarded themselves as victims of the assumption that motherhood must inevitably end a woman’s interest in a career. In addition, some of those keen to balance being a parent with being a researcher felt they were thought of as bad mothers.

Several interviewees remarked that men are still perceived as breadwinners and therefore more deserving of promotion—and that women, by contrast, are excluded from major research projects for fear that maternity leave will get in the way. One respondent spoke of “becoming invisible as a researcher,” while another said, “It’s assumed that I’ll have children. I’m viewed with suspicion, like I’m a ticking timebomb that’s going to go off and spoil everything.”

Unconscious Bias 5: Women Have to Achieve ‘Respectable Femininity’

Women in all walks of life face the paradox of striving to break the glass ceiling while avoiding sending their reputations through the floor. The situation in academia may be no different. Many of our respondents noted that what are deemed socially legitimate norms for men—self-aggrandizement, informality, banter, nights out with colleagues—might be viewed as anything but when applied to women.

For example, one interviewee told how she was condemned as a “pushy bitch” when she dared to trumpet her own abilities. “The rules aren’t written,” said another. “There’s an invisible line that you have to walk, and you have to hope you don’t cross it.”

All of the above represent organizational and occupational flaws. As business schools should know better than most, this means they won’t just go away. Irrespective of how desperately we wish they would, they won’t simply vanish with the passing of time. They have to be tackled head-on.

So what might be done to ensure genuine fairness? There really is no one “best way,” but whatever emerges as a best practice should certainly be shared as widely as possible; in tandem, business schools should be acutely aware that it would be quite wrong—not to mention thoroughly counterproductive—to proceed on the basis that men alone are both the cause of such problems and the only people capable of solving them. This isn’t a “them and us” situation. Everyone has a part to play in effecting change.

Business schools should also know the solutions, having devised and propagated the vast majority of them over the course of many years. Notwithstanding the complaints of positive discrimination that customarily attend them, more quotas and targets should be considered. Human resources departments could be empowered to challenge decisions. Greater imagination with regard to maternity arrangements would surely help, as would more promotion workshops, women-only professional development programs, robust policies for tackling homophily, leadership training, career conversations, mentorship and sponsorship, and even mandatory training around the perils of unconscious bias.

But here’s one of the most bitter ironies. The business school community has long expounded these ideas and ideals, championing the causes of diversity, inclusion, and meritocracy for anyone who might care to listen; and yet there are worrying signs that we may not have been paying sufficient attention to our own purported words of wisdom.

there are worrying signs that we may not have been paying sufficient attention to our own purported words of wisdom.

This raises some very awkward questions for business schools and, by extension, those who expect to benefit from their input. And maybe the most awkward of all is this: How can we expect the wider world to take our pronouncements on gender equality seriously when we might still be struggling to deal with the issue ourselves? All the institutions at which we’ve so far presented our work—not all of them business schools, by the way—have recognized the pressing need to confront this conundrum.

We don’t pretend our study is damningly conclusive. It offers only a snapshot—one insufficiently detailed or comprehensive enough to lay claims to universal applicability. This is why we hope to build on it further. But we do believe that even at this formative stage it hints very strongly at a need to ensure our own homes are completely in order before we tell anyone else how to run theirs.

We therefore encourage anyone associated with a business school to take an unflinching look at how their institution actually works—both in the context of formal processes and in the context of informal routines—and ask whether current levels of transparency and effectiveness are good enough. They may be unpleasantly surprised by what they find.

We also urge anyone associated with a business school to remember that it’s the fundamental credibility of our sector that could ultimately be at stake here. This is about real-world relevance and integrity, without which our status is likely to be hugely diminished, if not rendered nonexistent. With that sobering thought very much in mind, we humbly propose a new collective motto: Cura te ipsum.

Laurie CohenLaurie Cohen is a professor of work and organization at Nottingham University Business School and the author of  Imagining Women's Careers.


Jo DuberlyJo Duberley is a professor of organization studies at Birmingham Business School.