Let's Be Honest About Gender Discrimination at Business Schools

Photograph courtesy UCLA

Recent news stories have highlighted gender problems at UCLA’s business school. Many discuss the Anderson Graduate School of Management, described in a formal review as “inhospitable to women,” as if it were unique among business schools. But the truth few academics want to face is that discrimination against female faculty at business schools is a systematic, law-breaking practice, long embedded in the power structures of these institutions.

Gender imbalance continues, year after year, in every discipline within business school. Data provided by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) show steep attrition and anemic advancement among female faculty, indicating that the environment for women at Anderson is typical of other business schools.

Try to imagine how hard it would be for women to work in these circumstances—and how they might be discouraged to the point of leaving. Reports in both 2006 and 2014 at UCLA say standards were unequally applied there—and often marred by procedural irregularities—producing a consistent disadvantage for women’s careers.

To solve this problem, one needs to look beyond the “subtle digs” or “death by a thousand paper cuts” reported by at least one member of the UCLA task force. Take the aggressive teaching practices that are legendary in MBA programs. Students are goaded into a combative mode, as if this were necessary to survive in business, even though the more “feminine” skill of consensus building is actually more highly valued. We should ask how young female professors feel facing a classroom full of men who think being smart is best evidenced by having a take-no-prisoners attitude.

Rather than change the behaviors that scare female faculty away, leaders simply offer a strategy that promises more of the same, like Madhav Rajan at Stanford, who wants to “increase the mouth of the funnel” of the incoming stream of female faculty candidates for junior positions, on the dubious premise that bringing in more lambs will lead to less slaughter.

We might expect school leaders to deal authentically with the future that women on B-school faculties can expect: lower pay at each level within every discipline. Instead, they deflect responsibility for this discrimination by claiming that circumstances beyond their control result in an aggregate pattern of inequality. We should be skeptical of this reasoning; the usual excuses fall apart upon examination.

The default position is to blame inequality on maternity. Academic settings, however, provide flexible time: Summers are open, holidays occur during the year, and classes are held a few hours a week. Research consumes time, but is within individual control. Tenure clocks can stop for family reasons. Even an AACSB brochure, Becoming a Business Professor, promises “an unusual degree of freedom in defining work arrangements.”

Some blame women’s hobbled progress on poor preparation, particularly in mathematics. But the research on mathematical ability concludes that females and males do not differ, but females are susceptible to “stereotype threat”: Where females are told they are expected to perform less well on a mathematical test, they do, even if they are otherwise high performers. According to the reports, the environment at UCLA involved continual disparagement of female research ability. What does that finding imply about fairness of assessment? What impact might that male behavior have on female performance?

A common refrain is that women are paid less because they are poor negotiators. At UCLA, women got smaller raises, causing them to fall behind. One senior woman was ignored for years when she complained of being paid $30,000 less than male peers. Another expressed concern about her lower salary and was chastised for caring too much about money. These stories, plus the AACSB salary data, suggest business schools take a cavalier stance toward the principle of equal pay for equal work. The notion that females would consistently deserve lower salaries, in every discipline, is pure bigotry.

B-school leaders have an interest in turning attention away from this reality. Consider that Harvard openly admitted that it had discovered a bias in its evaluations of female students. Are we to accept that this same bias does not manifest when HBS makes hiring or promotion decisions?

From a long-term vantage, the problem looks even more ominous. Shani Carter, at Rhode Island College School of Management, analyzed data collected for the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty. This 2010 study showed that, in 1988, both men and women were clustered at the low end of the hierarchy in instructor/lecturer positions, which are normally not tenure track.

In 2004, women were still primarily in contract posts, but men were concentrated at the highest, most secure level.

Andrew Policano, then chairman of the AACSB, dismissed Carter’s finding as out of date because diversity efforts were ongoing. Interestingly, a version of that reasoning is used today—that diversity efforts take time to register real change. But these data were a predictive snapshot of the power structure within business schools: Women are in the lowest, most vulnerable posts and men are at the far end where the power to decide the fate of others lies. Today, men occupy 81 percent of full professor posts at business schools—down only one percentage point since 2010.

Difficult as it may be, given the small numbers and isolation, women in business schools should speak out and push back, instead of accepting these condescending explanations for their own unequal treatment. We lack a sense of moral outrage for the ongoing tolerance of sex discrimination throughout this branch of the academy. We must treat this situation for what it is: compelling evidence that equality legislation, in place for 50 years, is being violated in ordinary practice to a degree that is clearly neither individual nor anomalous.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.