Business School Leadership: Gendered or Genderless?


While women in both academia and corporate environments enjoy relative equality compared to their historical counterparts, there is still a long way to go. AACSB international reports that amongst its US business school members, female deans only comprise 19% of the total and in the UK, only 23% of deans are female. It’s not all bad news though; there is a steady increase in the percentage of female professorships in Business and Management Education (17% in 2006/07 to 21.7% in 2012/13), increasingly becoming the talent pool from which business school leadership is drawn.  At that rate of change we can look forward to parity in the sector in 2049....

But it’s not just a question of numbers. Women in leadership positions in UK Business Schools, who joined the Association of Business Schools and ESCP Europe Berlin for the annual ABS Women Leaders' Lunch In June, indicated that they would define themselves as a ‘leader’ as opposed to a ‘woman leader’. This goes some way to highlight the tendency to consider understandings of leadership as gender neutral. However, leadership is frequently characterised by rationality centred on control, an element that sits uneasily when combined with expectations of women consciously (and unconsciously) upheld socially and professionally.

Subsequently, once in a leadership position, be that dean, associate dean, academic lead etc, women face deeper challenges around the ‘type’ of leader they go on to characterise. Women who hope to progress their careers are often faced with a ‘double bind’, needing to uphold traditional expectations of being female (often in order to be liked and accepted), whilst also demonstrating managerial and leadership behaviours commonly coupled with masculinity.

Traditional associations go: woman as nurturer, carer, empathetic, group orientated; and man as rational, logical, strong, individual. It is not difficult to appreciate that the latter more closely compliments accepted leadership attributes. While all of us can easily think of individuals who transgress these stereotypes, the success at which they do so, while maintaining personal integrity and team respect, is more variable.  This seems especially true for women in leadership. As Barbara Streisand famously said “he’s assertive, she’s aggressive”.

As one guest at the event observed “organisational politics were defined, and continue to be upheld by a male ‘club’, trying to infiltrate this is challenging”. Crucially, it was also highlighted that this infiltration needs to be accompanied by perseverance (by men and women) to bring about structural change.  To borrow from Audre Lorde: “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house”. Women leaders ought to celebrate any potential differences in leadership and work with male colleagues to re-draw the parameters of what it means to be an effective leader. 

Classifying oneself as a ‘woman leader’ often seems an unnecessary spotlight on gender for those who wish to lead as equals.  At the same time, it appears to be a useful way to recognise the unique challenges some women are likely to face as they track towards success, especially since the playing field still appears to be at an angle. As one respondent summarised “I don’t usually see [leadership] as a gendered issue; until I am faced with a boardroom full of men”.

The Association of Business Schools will continue to explore these themes, holding two events per year, one in the UK and one international visit in January and July respectively.  In 2015 the events will be held in Said Business School, Oxford, in January hosted by Dr. Dana Brown, and in Skema, Nice, hosted by Prof. Alice Guilhon on Friday 10 July. They will combine the benefits of professional networking, with the opportunity to reflect on personal goals and challenges. If you would like to know more about how the ABS is supporting the diversity agenda, or sign up to receive updates on our events, please contact