Gender Diversifying the Business Curriculum

Why teaching more gender-diverse cases is so important—and how every business school can achieve that goal.

four rows of men in suits with one woman in red

SINCE THE LATE 1970s, more women than men have studied at higher education institutions in the United States. As of 2018, 56 percent of undergraduate students in the U.S. were women, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Even so, women make up only 40 percent of students in the field of business and management education. 

We see the same trend among business and management doctoral students and faculty. According to data from AACSB International, 40 percent of doctoral graduates in business are women. Of business and management faculty, 38 percent of assistant professors, 33 percent of associate professors, and only 20 percent of full professors are female. Similarly, women make up only 20 percent of business school deans.

While the number of women in management education overall has grown over the last three decades, the gender representation in our curricula has not matched this growth. An overwhelming number of cases and other course materials available to instructors still feature male protagonists. And, typically, the majority of guest speakers many of us bring into our classrooms are male.

This lack of representation of women in business school curricula could be a contributing factor to the lack of women in the corporate sector. According to Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing women in business leadership, only 6 percent of the CEOs of S&P 500 companies are women, which makes it even more difficult for us to provide role models for female students who aspire to become leaders.

Business schools are tasked with training future business leaders, which makes it imperative that we reexamine our curricula. Gender parity starts in the classroom. Below, we offer practical suggestions for ways that any business school can diversify its curriculum—which we believe will, in turn, lead to greater gender equity in business.

HOW TO GET STARTED

Once you commit to diversifying the curriculum, how do you do it? While it’s important to recognize key factors such as faculty governance, the role of academic departments, and faculty ownership of the classes they teach, the first thing a school will need is a champion who will lead the effort and engage administrators, faculty, students, alumni, and other key stakeholders on the issue.

Once a champion is in place, there are many ways that a business school can lay the groundwork for designing a more diverse curriculum:

Incorporate your efforts into assurance of learning activities. Schools can develop direct and indirect methods for measuring whether students are achieving learning outcomes related to gender equity.

Start with the core curriculum. We recommend that schools begin this process with the goal-setting framework called S.M.A.R.T., which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Taking on the whole curriculum at once would be a difficult task, but when schools start with a specific focus—the core curriculum—they reap multiple benefits. This approach is measurable and achievable.

In addition, because every student takes the core courses, any changes to the core are likely to impact every student equally. Finally, gender diversifying the core will create momentum that will eventually carry over into elective classes.

Audit the current curriculum. Lesley Symons, the founder of The Case for Women, adapted the now well-known Bechdel Test to analyze top cases used in business schools. Cartoonist Alison Bechdel originally came up with the idea as a way to measure the active presence of female characters in Hollywood films. To pass the three-part Bechdel Test, a film must have at least two female lead characters (1) who talk to each other (2) about something other than a man (3).

In Symons’ version, the Symons Test, a gender-diverse case study must have at least one woman (1) who is in a leadership position (2) and who talks to another woman about the business (3). Symons promoted this approach after her research, featured March 2016 in the Harvard Business Review, revealed that only 11 percent of top business school cases have a female protagonist.

TO PASS THE SYMONS TEST, A CASE MUST HAVE AT LEAST ONE WOMAN IN A LEADERSHIP POSITION TALK TO ANOTHER WOMAN ABOUT THE BUSINESS.

Several business schools—from Columbia Business School to the MIT Sloan School of Management to UCLA Anderson—have worked with Symons to understand how their core curricula performed according to the Symons Test. Other schools can conduct similar audits by hiring outside researchers or assembling internal teams made up of administrators, students, and faculty. That team could comprise student leaders on campus or a representative mix of administrators, students, and faculty.

Time it right. Because an audit will likely take a year to complete, one of the best times to start an audit is at the beginning of the new school year, when curriculum committees are collecting finalized course syllabi.

If you wish to collect statistics during the semester—such as number of total cases used in a class, number of women invited as guest speakers, and number of cases with female protagonists—set out a plan for faculty to gather this information before classes start. Then, faculty can spend the summer months diversifying the content for the coming year.

HOW TO MAKE DIVERSIFICATION HAPPEN

After you collect the data, what are the next steps to achieving greater diversity in your curriculum? Here are ways to achieve long-lasting results, not just temporary changes:

Set standards for each course that uses cases. For example, UCLA Anderson adopted the standard that the percentage of cases with female protagonists should match the percentage of enrolled students who identify as female. However, how women are represented in these cases is just important as that they are represented. It takes more to make a case gender-diverse than merely changing the name of a protagonist from Jim to Jane. In addition, it’s important not to perpetuate stereotypes by choosing cases that focus solely on women who work in areas such as human resources or marketing, or in the so-called “pink” industries: food, family, furniture, and fashion.

It’s not that business students shouldn’t study women-focused cases from these industries. But these types of cases should not be the only ones with female protagonists, nor should they make up the majority of cases with female protagonists used in a course. Faculty should avoid reinforcing established stereotypes.

Take advantage of the wide range of applicable cases that are available. For instance, Harvard Business Publishing has a webpage with recommended cases that have female protagonists. Symons also includes a similar list on her website, The Case for Women.

Set standards for guest speakers. This might entail asking faculty to invite equal numbers of men and women as guest speakers. Or, professors might invite a male leader and a female leader to the same class session to provide different points of view on the same topic.

DON‘T PERPETUATE STEREOTYPES BY CHOOSING CASES THAT FOCUS SOLELY ON WOMEN WORKING IN THE SO-CALLED “PINK” INDUSTRIES: FOOD, FAMILY, FURNITURE, AND FASHION.

Help faculty expand their networks. Faculty with limited networks might find it difficult to invite equal numbers of male and female speakers, but there are several ways they can expand their business contacts. They can ask the alumni relations office for recommendations and talk to employers and recruiters. They can engage with professional networks such as the Women’s Business Club or ask those in their existing networks for referrals.

Faculty also can tap their existing networks in new ways. For example, at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business in Salt Lake City, a faculty member had a research-based connection with a woman who at the time was an editor from the Harvard Business Review and a co-host of HBR’s Women at Work podcast. The professor invited her to speak to students taking the course Managing and Leading in Organizations about the challenges of gender diversification.

Integrate issues of gender into existing content and class discussions. Faculty can consistently ask students to discuss how diversity, equity, and inclusion come into play in everyday business scenarios. Instructors do not have to have all the answers—or even agree with popular solutions. What’s important is that they ask questions that give all students the opportunity to contribute to the discussion.

Create new course content. When some faculty at New York University’s Stern School of Business were unable to find cases featuring female protagonists with the learning outcomes they wanted, they created their own. Others in business are doing the same: Earlier this year, Emerald Publishing partnered with The Case for Women and Forté, a nonprofit focused on the advancement of women in business, to launch a case writing competition in which every entry featured a female protagonist. With or without such a competition, faculty can pool their resources to generate similar content for the curriculum.

Create a separate course. It’s likely that only certain students will self-select into a standalone course on gender. But those who do enroll will have the opportunity to engage with the topic in greater depth. For instance, at the University of Utah’s Eccles School, the Women in Business (WIB) student organization and the Women’s Council facilitated two peer-to-peer roundtables. These discussions uncovered academic areas that many in the campus community sought to better understand. Based on those discussions and other input from WIB, the business school partnered with the university’s division of gender studies to create a new course called Gender and Contemporary Issues.

Although the list of recommendations above is not all-inclusive, it provides a blueprint for major considerations to think about as you create a more gender-inclusive curriculum. With each decision, whether major or minor, you will begin to change the conversation for students, faculty, and other key stakeholders.

FINAL THOUGHTS

We have just a few more recommendations for tackling the challenge of incorporating gender equity into the classroom:

Consider the why, what, and how. We teach students that it is important to consider their audience when they’re making a case for change. That’s just as true for business educators. Why are you pursuing this goal? What do you hope to achieve? How can a gender-diversified curriculum add value at your institution?

As you answer these questions, be sure to leverage alumni and student leaders (both women and men), members of the Women’s Business Club, and staff at key offices like those for career services or admissions. Have multiple conversations with many constituents, and benchmark your program against programs at other schools that are making progress.

Remember to delegate. No one person should take on this challenge alone. Those who help you better understand the importance of gender diversity are also the ones you might turn to as champions, guest speakers, and mentors.

BY CHAMPIONING GREATER GENDER INCLUSIVITY, YOU WILL SPARK RICHER CONVERSATIONS ABOUT DIVERSITY IN THE CLASSROOM.

Invite everyone to the party. Don’t limit the conversation to only those you think are most likely to participate. Instead, think strategically to ensure that many voices are represented. As they rethink the curriculum, administrators and their institutions will be well-served if they engage key male allies in the process.

We have focused on gender diversity in this discussion, but these suggestions apply to other forms of diversity as well. Schools can look at the extent to which their curricula represent people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, military veterans, or protagonists with disabilities, just to provide a few examples. What’s important is for a school to get a baseline understanding of where it stands today, which will enable its leaders to set goals for improvements that are measurable and achievable. 

By championing greater gender inclusivity, you will spark richer conversations about diversity in the classroom. These much-needed conversations will help all students grow as individuals, in ways that we believe will lead to greater gender equity among the top leadership of business schools and businesses alike.


Gary Fraser is the associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the New York University Stern School of Business in New York City. Ruchi Watson is managing director of the Goff Strategic Leadership Center at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Advertise With BizEd