Can B-School Students Talk About Gender? Yes, and Here's How

Photograph by Seb Oliver/Corbis

Whatever you think about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, the book undeniably demonstrated that the conversation about women in the workplace is far from over. After reading the book, the two of us—both majors in business at Boston University’s School of Management—decided to start a monthly book club and forum about gender in the business world.

Though we initially encountered some resistance along the lines of “Oh no, not another feminist book club,” the response from students—male and female—as well as from faculty who have participated, has been overwhelmingly positive. Attendance at each of these breakfast meetings has been strong and getting stronger. On a thriving Facebook page, participants recommend articles, post comments, and build community.

Our first meeting focused on the Sandberg book and featured a panel of three School of Management professors that sparked a lively debate, not only about gender in the business world, but also social class. A subsequent meeting, built around Debora L. Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection, explored issues of beauty, the effect of ‘hook-up culture’ on young women, and the “Mommy Wars” that pit career women against homemakers. Next semester, a panel of successful male executives will discuss how gender issues have affected them.

People often emerge from the discussions surprised, though for different reasons. Some participants are stunned because they were unaware of the gender bias that exists in business. Others are shocked by the current lack of debate about these issues. After we watched Jennifer Siebel’s film, Miss Representation, which is about media treatment of women and its effect on female self-perceptions in the workplace, one of the male attendees said ruefully, “I encounter this phenomenon every day, but I had just never thought about how harmful it is.” At the same meeting, a faculty member expressed shock that university employees were not discussing or addressing gender issues.

Throughout, we’ve pursued three main goals: to raise awareness about gender issues by encouraging participants to actively discuss and debate these topics; to encourage members to look beyond their own personal interests to consider the gender implications of decisions they will make; and to create a strong sense of community among faculty and students of differing ages, interests, and experience. At each meeting, we see new relationships forming between faculty members, regular attendees, and newcomers. Our hope is that this community continues to grow stronger and that its members remain linked long past graduation.

As we hit the halfway point of the forum’s first year, we’ve been thinking about what really makes it work—the “critical success factors,” as it’s termed in business. Some of these factors we designed in, some we stumbled upon, and others we found already in place in our surroundings:

The focus is on leadership, policy, and personal preparation for the world of work – not victimization. Gender stereotypes, discrimination, and obstacles that prevent the balancing of personal and professional life are all real, and we don’t shy away from discussing them. But our aim is to understand them, to consider how we will address them personally and as leaders—male and female—when we enter the working world.

The subject matter fills a gap in the study of management. Because women have historically had fewer opportunities, most business case studies are about successful men. Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Lou Gertsner, and others like them are certainly worthy of study, and some of the business lessons they have to teach us may be largely gender-neutral. But the sheer number of these stories and the gender issues they omit inadvertently suggest that management is monolithically male.

Focusing on a book turns sensitive issues into substantive discussion. As anyone who has ever spent any time in a dorm knows, debates about hot-button issues can be both formless and ferocious. Structuring the discussion around a text and initiating it with a panel gives constructive direction to the conversation. Not that we don’t sometimes have heated debates, but the book keeps them anchored in the issues and offers everyone a point of entry into the conversation.

Our peers expect more of companies than profits or a paycheck. One of the formative experiences for many students of our generation was the worldwide economic crisis and its accompanying corporate misbehavior. Many of our fellow students express a strong desire to work for companies that practice social responsibility, which includes getting gender issues right.

The group is officially known as RISE. That name is meant to connote the morning start time for the meetings as well as characterize the career ambitions of its members. And it contains a hope—that when the rising generation leaves school for the larger world, we will take with us what we’ve learned about these complicated issues and put it to work.