Closing the Gender Gap: How Business Schools Can Transform Higher Ed

If you were asked to imagine a professor, what would come to mind? More than likely, you’d picture a man, not a woman. This mental association isn’t just a product of stereotypes or cultural biases, though those undoubtedly factor in; it’s also the result of the fact that women still don’t play as big or as prestigious a role as men do in academia. While today women make up a larger percentage of academics than ever, they still only comprise 33.6% of full-time faculty at U.S. colleges, a rise of just 10% over the past 60 years. That’s not especially promising, especially as women have begun to dominate undergraduate college enrollments, outnumbering men for the first time in history. (They’re currently 60% of the undergraduate population.) What’s driving women away from a career in academia? The answer is complicated, but perhaps not unexpected.

An Unequal Academia

Research has shown that what turns many women away from a career in academia may not be overt discrimination — though that can be a factor — but something much more subtle. A joint study by the National Science Foundation and UC Irvine found that women in academia experienced unspoken but ever-present “deeply entrenched inequities.” Among them, failure to progress as fast as their male colleagues, fewer opportunities to earn tenure or be named full professors, earning less than male colleagues with equivalent experience, and feeling excluded from networking opportunities. These experiences often take a heavy toll on women in academia. A study by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education found that female faculty exhibit lower levels of job satisfaction and are more likely to leave academia than their male counterparts, citing unnecessary competitiveness, poor work-life balance, and a general feeling of just not fitting in as reasons for their dissatisfaction.

What’s worse for many women is that long-standing, often unconscious prejudices aren’t just held by their male professors and colleagues. A study done at Yale in 2012 provided professors with identical applicants for a job as a lab manager at a university, with only one difference: one applicant had a female name and one had a male name. Across the board, from both female and male professors, the female applicant was evaluated as being less competent despite the applications being identical save for the names. What’s more, the starting salary offered to the female applicant was significantly lower — more than $4,000 lower. With both women and men exhibiting a bias against females in academia, it’s not likely that overt misogyny is the cause of difficulties in academia faced by women. Instead, the authors of the study suggest that subtle internalized prejudices and societal stereotypes, perhaps at the root of those “deeply entrenched inequities,” are to blame.

Whatever the cause, many women in academia feel the persistent presence of invisible elements holding them back, and even with many examples of women who’ve had prestigious, successful careers, the glass ceiling in academia makes getting ahead much harder than it should be in an age that places a heavy value on gender equality.

The STEM Situation

Problems like these don’t occur equally across the board. Some academic fields have certainly fared worse than others. While some humanities fields, like philosophy, have dismally low numbers of female doctorates, the biggest gender divide lies in STEM, with fields like physics, computer science, engineering, and chemistry having incredibly gender-skewed enrollments in both Ph.D. programs and faculty appointments. Currently, women make up only 27% of STEM faculty at American research universities, and even fewer manage to make it to the top, with just 18% of female faculty in STEM becoming full professors at their respective schools. Worst of all, according to NSF research, at the top 50 research universities, the percentage of female full professors ranges between 3% to 15%, well below the national average.

STEM fields pose an interesting conundrum. Numerous studies have shown that women are not only interested in science and engineering but also often excel in these fields. Women even make up a significant number of those enrolling in STEM graduate programs (though still much lower than their male counterparts in all areas except for the biological sciences), yet few stick with academia as a career. Many believe that the factors that push women out of academia overall are only amplified in STEM, where men often outnumber women four to one. Academia’s real challenge, then, isn’t just bringing in smart, capable women, but creating an environment where they want to stay, grow, and find fulfilling careers. It may be easier said than done.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than a recent study done by the U.K. Resource Centre for Women in SET and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Researchers found that 72% of female chemistry Ph.D. students in their first year of study were planning to pursue career in academia. By their third year, however, that number had dropped to 59%. Even worse, among those who planned to pursue research positions, only 12% felt academia was their first career choice.

Data like this is troubling, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Despite those in the ivory tower cultivating an image of progressiveness, academia still doesn’t offer an environment that’s particularly friendly to women (at least not consistently). What’s more, this is hardly a revelation. Over two decades ago, research was already pointing to major problems with the work environment created by academia. A 1992 study by professors at SUNY, Columbia, and Northwestern found that women experience a much different social environment at work than their male counterparts, making it more difficult to socialize, network, find support, collaborate, build self-confidence, and ultimately to advance in their academic careers.

The Growth of the Female-Friendly Business School

The difficulties colleges have had in attracting and retaining female faculty, as well as in getting women interested in certain fields in the first place, have an interesting counterpart in business school. Business schools, much like business itself, have long been a male-dominated arena. In the 1970s, fewer than 4% of business students were female, though today that number has risen, with schools reporting an average of 37% female enrollment in 2010. Not all of those female students are getting MBAs, however; many are also pursuing doctoral degrees. In fact, 35.4% of doctoral students in business are now women, compared to 31.7% five years ago. Women are not only more commonly preparing for careers in business through graduate schools, but also for careers as professors and mentors to other students.

Why the change? It’s all about creating a female-friendly environment. Many business schools have been actively trying to woo women into their programs, in part spurred by the demand for more women in upper management. Changes have been made in how business schools recruit, support female students, and even in the design and flexibility of business programs themselves.

Take Fordham University. The school has begun pairing female applicants with current female students to help them see what life is like at the university and to provide guidance and mentorship if applicants decide to attend. Other schools are using similar methods to draw in students, with a few additional female-friendly benefits: courses that are highly flexible so that women can more easily balance career and family, access to female mentors in faculty and business, and special female-only scholarships that help make school more affordable. In part because of these kinds of efforts, Fordham and many other schools now boast male-to-female ratios that are much closer to 50/50.

Beyond Business School

While business schools are stepping up to attract women, the effect hasn’t quite trickled into the upper echelons of the business world just yet. Business as a whole is still an incredibly male-dominated field. Consider this: just 21 Fortune 500 companies are headed by women, a new high, but hardly an achievement. Similarly, just 15.7% of senior execs at those companies are women. There are still major issues of sexism and unintentional bias that exist in the business world that may be keeping many women out of top management positions, just as they deter women in academia, but the situation is far from hopeless. Like business schools, business as a whole is seeing the value in bringing women on board, especially as studies report that having women in management can actually help boost the bottom line.

While progress for women in business has been slow, almost glacially so, the face of business has steadily been changing. Women may not yet have an equal share of top leadership positions, but with women making up almost 40% of full-time workers in management that’s likely to change, especially with studies showing that companies who already have one female director are more likely to appoint more women than those with all-male boards. The increasing number of women in leadership positions may also account for why 40% of current female directors attained their positions within the last five years, a dramatic shift in balance. What’s more, women have been starting businesses at a higher rate than men for the past 20 years and are expected to create more than half of the 9.72 million new small business jobs over the next year. Incredible considering that just three years ago women only created 16% of small business jobs in the U.S.

The tides appear to be turning for women in business, even in fields that have long had a reputation for being male-dominated. Those same STEM fields that drive women away from the upper echelons of academia are drawing more and more women into the upper echelons of business. Over the past decade, women have been appointed to top positions in a number of high-profile companies in technology and engineering. Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer made major headlines, as did IBM’s Virginia Rometty, the first female CEO in the company’s 100-year history. Women also hold top positions at companies like Facebook, Google, Oracle, Xerox, Cisco, Lockheed Martin, HTC, Twitter, Zipcar, and HP, and while still only making up 14% of top executives at Tech 500 companies, are gaining some serious ground in heavily male-dominated fields.

So what allows women to excel in the male-dominated world of business and not in academia? While a lot of these success stories can be attributed to simple things like talent, education, and drive, a big part of their ability to succeed may have been in finding work with open-minded companies. Companies headed by younger, more progressive leaders who are open to women in leadership positions offer drastically different opportunities for success than in academia where many professors have been teaching since women were a relative rarity in the profession. Another critical factor is mentoring and collaboration with other female coworkers. Xerox CEO Ursula Burns has said she loved the experience of working side by side with former CEO and longtime Xerox exec Anne Mulcahy, a partnership that not only catapulted her to her position as CEO but actually helped to save the company. It also doesn’t hurt that many businesses also working hard to bring more women into leadership positions by offering training, creating better work-life balance, and extending family-friendly benefits.

What Academia Can Learn

Business is hardly a perfect example of women breaking through the glass ceiling, as success stories are still few and far between. Yet it does show that forward-thinking policies that cater to the needs and talents of women at all levels, from grad school onwards, can help women have long, successful, satisfying careers, even in heavily male-dominated industries.

In light of this, promising changes are already on the horizon at some colleges and universities. Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Tech, and Harvey Mudd College have all worked to change the cultural climate, recruiting methods, and support for women in computer science programs. Carnegie Mellon’s efforts helped to expand its female undergraduate enrollment in computer science from just 7% to 42% in only five years. Critical to attracting and retaining female students in programs like this, and others, have been several factors: active recruiting, department social activities, changes to the climate of the department, and informal mentoring groups that help students from school into jobs.

When it comes to professional-level reforms, similar initiatives may be helpful to finding and retaining female faculty. Those in academia may also find that emulating many of the measures that have proven successful in bringing more women into the business world could work equally well in the academic setting. Sally Shaywitz, a professor and co-director of the Center for Dyslexia and Creativity at Yale, says that measures like chairing a search committee with a female faculty member can often lead to more women in academic positions. Additionally, providing women with mentors and support systems for research, as well as policy changes that are more family-friendly also help women feel more at home in academic roles. Without these kind of changes, many schools, even top universities, may find they’re losing serious female talent to other industries that have adopted more female-friendly environments, perhaps, moving forward, even business.