New start to the MBA year; new start for women?

With the start of a new semester at business schools and MBA courses around the world, women’s attendance figures in these courses are a hot topic. Some business schools are keen to be recognised for their increased female student numbers. For instance, Harvard and Wharton lead the way with 42 and 41 % respectively female student attendance.

However, this is only part of the story. Along with having more women on campuses, involved in classroom discussions, and reading case papers, there also needs to be a concerted effort to advance how women are represented in all aspects of business school life, including leading classes and in the materials read for those classes. Harvard Business School Dean Nohria recognised this need for an upgrade in his famous apology to women at Harvard for the lack of women leaders in case papers. Whilst at INSEAD France, I noticed a distinct lack of women on campus, both as professors and as students. Although my own course (not an MBA) had 48% women attending, it was clear that most other courses did not share this gender balance. Even more noticeable to me was the lack of case material I read with a woman either as a lead or as a manager, let alone mentioned at all. In fact, across my eight modules studied, I had only one paper with a woman as the lead and in that one paper, she doubted herself instead of exhibiting confidence or strong leadership! My master’s thesis topic was therefore easy to pick: I decided to research the presence of women across award-winning and bestselling case papers distributed by The Case Centre, one of the leading distributors of business school case papers, from 2009 to 2013. These papers are used widely in business school programmes worldwide and are indicative of what students are reading for their courses. I was surprised by two things: firstly, that this research had not been done before, and secondly, by the outcomes that I found. Invisible women  I compiled, read and researched 53 different papers across a five year period, with some papers featured across both categories of the Case Centre’s award winners and best-selling papers. What I found was that overwhelmingly, women were not portrayed in leadership positions; in fact, they were hardly represented at all in these studies. Women, leadership, and business seemed to be at odds across the papers. Out of the 53 papers, women were the protagonists in just seven papers; of these seven papers, two were originally written with a male protagonist and had the name, and consequently the gender, changed. This meant that only five (or 9%) of the 53 papers were originally written with a female lead. In five of these seven papers, the female protagonist was the only woman present in the paper. Women were mentioned in 29 of the papers; however, I deemed women to be “present” in only 11 of the papers due to the scarcity of description and attention given to the women in most of them. Women were totally absent in 24 (or 48%) of all papers. Of the 53 papers, 52 of them mentioned at least one man, and in 29 of the papers, there was also a “founding father” mentioned in addition to the male lead. These results led me to devising of an adaptation of the Bechdel test, now called the Symons test, for case studies. In order to pass this test, a case paper had to have 1) a woman in it who was 2) in a leadership position and 3) who spoke to another woman about the business. Just three of the 53 papers met the criteria for all three categories. Women were not present in the papers, were not portrayed as leaders, and when they were leaders, they were alone. Stereotypes of leadership as “male” Along with the lack of female leaders in the case papers, the papers also represented leadership using attributes that are stereotypically assigned to men. For example, here are some words used to describe the male protagonists presented in my thesis and taken from the case studies: “passionate,” “committed,” “disciplined,” “results-driven,” “able to see the big picture,” “strong-willed,” “courageous,” and “energetic.”(Symons2014-Invisible SelvesThesisINSEAD) Even in the majority of cases where there was a female leader, her male counterparts were described in more detail. Valerie Petit found similar outcomes in her classroom (see the recent FT article “Male stereotype of a leader persists”). She stated that she gives an exercise to her students to match three words and three names with the term “leader”; year after year, students respond with words that are generally attributed to masculine forms of leadership and list famous male leaders. Pink Topics The OpEd Project 2012 Byline Report tracks the most influential ideas and individuals in U.S. national and global conversations. It tracks major media sites and publishers as well as social media. OpEd coined the phrase “Pink Topics” to describe topics that 1) fall into what was once known as “the four Fs”: food, family (relationships, children, and sex), furniture (home), and fashion; and 2) women-focused subject matter, e.g. women-specific health or culture. Pink Topics are not seen as any less important than other topics; they simply identify areas where women writers are predominantly in print. All of the case papers with a woman protagonist within the 53 that were studied fit into the Pink Topics. Contrast that with the leading category for papers with a male protagonist, which was Information Technologies (IT) with 31% of all male lead papers coming from this sector. From the evidence gathered from these 53 papers, it seems clear that women and men do not read women as leaders in these papers. The invisibility of women in these papers tells women that they do not belong in business, which undermines one of the main reasons for women being at business schools in the first place. It also perpetrates second generation gender bias defined as practices and patterns that appear gender neutral but inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage. Women are not encouraged to see a potential leader in themselves or, more importantly, are not even reading about role models in leadership. Women and men go to business schools to learn about business and how to lead. Business schools have a responsibility to show multiple ways of leading that encompass the many different facets of leadership, not a stereotypically gendered and outdated view of leadership that could then be reinforced outside of school in the business world. Although we are now beginning to see more women signing up for MBAs, as of yet we are not seeing any shift in the teaching materials or how students are taught that reflects that change. So as of yet, no new start for women.