The Gender Effect in the MBA

Cultural expectations could be leading women to pursue more collaborative business disciplines.
The Gender Affect in the MBA

WHAT KEEPS WOMEN’S representation in MBA programs below 50 percent? A recent study finds that, while women’s participation is higher in certain business disciplines such as leadership and marketing, it’s in more technical fields such as accounting and finance where their numbers dip.

Does this finding support the belief that women are more likely to pursue careers in socially oriented fields, while men are more likely to pursue technical fields? It’s not as simple as that, say the study’s co-authors. They include Aaron Wallen, executive director of the management division at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies in New York City and a former lecturer at Columbia Business School; Michael Morris, a professor of leadership at Columbia Business School; Beth Devine, a doctoral student at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France; and Jackson Lu, a doctoral student at Columbia.

The researchers examined data about MBA students before and after enrollment to learn more about the existence of a gender gap. In addition, they surveyed two cohorts of second-year MBA students—206 men and 107 women. Among their questions, the researchers asked students to self-report their public assertiveness versus their private effort in their programs.

The researchers found that the perceived performance gap between men and women in business school is reinforced by society’s gender-based expectations, which in turn shape students’ behaviors. For instance, women and men often grow up hearing that women are expected to be more collaborative and men, more assertive which could lead women to pursue more “social” or collaborative disciplines.

The researchers also found that women who choose to study in technical disciplines fare best when they assert themselves by asking questions in class and participating in study groups. However, many often do not speak up because they have internalized society’s expectations of women, explains Wallen.

“Our research shows that female students far too often hold back and hesitate to ask the kinds of questions that would help them better master technical concepts and procedures, perhaps because it is inconsistent with the established gender norms linking men with technical ability,” he says. “This has a profound effect on [women’s] overall achievement in MBA classes.”

That said, the research shows that this “gender effect” is not present when women study in socially oriented fields. The data also show that women in more technical courses often compensate for this effect by putting additional effort into their private studying.

The researchers recommend several policies that could help business schools enroll more women and create environments where women are less constricted by gender norms:

Sponsor programs to attract women undergraduates to technical fields.

Conduct outreach to women in STEM disciplines who might not have considered an MBA degree.

Lower work experience requirements for MBA programs, which would attract students at a younger age when they might find it less difficult to balance work, education, and family.

Train faculty and students to encourage everyone to participate, not just those who speak most frequently.

What is less effective, the researchers argue, are programs that focus on changing women’s behavior. “Interventions for assertiveness often focus on women’s confidence or body language. But this misses the point,” says Wallen. “‘Lean in’ interventions that address the roots of the problem would work better than ‘lean on’ interventions that suppress its symptoms.”

Understanding the MBA gender gap: Women respond to gender norms by reducing public assertiveness but not private effort” was published in the August 2017 issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.