5 ways Business Schools Can Help Shatter the Glass Ceiling

I was incensed when discovering the gender gap lurking in my business school. It wasn’t evident in my class room – in this - unusually - there was a healthy balance of men and women.

Instead, I noticed gender inequality hiding among the school’s business case studies. Business schools use these core educational tools to teach students how to lead and connect theory with real-life experience. Schools also tout case studies as the most effective way to provide lessons in leadership.

Yet, incredibly, most of the case studies feature male leaders. Women are a glaring omission.

In my thesis, ‘Where are the women leaders?’, I analysed The Case Centre’s award-winning case studies and the top three best-selling cases each year between 2009 and 2013.

My research shows women as the protagonists in just seven of the 53 different case studies. Of those seven, two are actually men. A case writer changed the names of two protagonists in an attempt to inject more women into case studies. In comparison, men are featured as the protagonist in an overwhelming 45 of the 53 different case studies.

It’s incredibly disappointing that women are invisible in today’s business schools. There are few female professors and board members, and the lack of female protagonists in case studies has a major impact on how people, both men and women, view women in leadership.

It’s time business schools played a pivotal role in empowering women to finally shatter that glass ceiling. Here are five things business schools need to do to be female-friendly.

1. Write case studies with female leaders

With women the lead writers of just seven of the 53 different case studies, the inequality is obvious from the onset. In 2013, Harvard Business School revealed only 9% of its case studies feature female protagonists. The school has pledged to increase the number of female protagonists in its case studies to 20% over five years. More business schools should take action to measure the diversity of their case protagonists. It’s imperative that more female leaders are written into case studies. Not only does this allow women to view female role models and other effective leadership styles, it also gives women the ability to see themselves as agents of change.

2.  Counter stereotypes

Redressing the gender balance involves more than increasing the number of female protagonists. Female leaders across award-winning and best-selling case studies are mostly found in the ‘pink topic’ areas of food, family, furniture and fashion, and gender-specific subjects, such as women’s health issues. This stereotypic representation ignores some of the renowned female leaders making vital inroads in fields such as social media, technology and the internet. More detail about the qualities of female leaders will also assist students to value different types of leadership.

3. Understand the gender gap

Business schools must review the issue of gender equality, not just in the classroom but across their whole institution. It’s vital they assess the explicit and implicit messages about gender and leadership in their teaching materials. One way they can rate their case studies is with my Symons Test. The test calls for a case study: (1), to have one woman in it; (2) in a leadership position (the protagonist); (3) who talks to another woman about the business. Engaging professors to answer gender equity questionnaires about the case studies in their programs also works to highlight the imbalance.

4. Lead the way

It’s disconcerting that while women have consistently completed 35% of MBA degrees in the US over the past 10 years, women still leave business schools on lower salaries than men. Business schools have an important role to play in enabling young men and women to see both genders as leaders. They are also in a unique position to model new ways of leadership for the corporate sector that challenge traditional management methods. They must champion the cause of gender diversity. The future of women as leaders in our corporate world depends on it.

5. Foster more female leaders

Business schools are masculine environments. There are few female role models for business students at a faculty level. In 2013, women formed between 14% and 24% of academic staff at the world’s top MBA programs while women also accounted for as little as 11% of board members at these same programs. Growing the number of female professors and female board members ensures more women will see themselves as leaders. Business schools should consider introducing a gender initiative to review the number of women in senior faculty positions.

I urge business schools to take this matter seriously and get on with the business of making changes.