Making the most of the moment: Gender equality in business and management schools

Women remain under-represented in all disciplines and levels of academia, especially at the professorial level, in senior leadership roles, including deans, university vice-chancellors and presidents and in gate-keeping positions, such as editorial boards and research funding bodies.

European business schools are characterised by strong vertical gender segregation, with 60% reporting that less than 30% of their highest ranked faculty were female. Much work on gender equality has focused on STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine) subjects, yet Business and Management disciplines remain relatively under-studied.  None of the 26 European Commission-funded research projects since 2011 examining gender equality and implementing structural change in Research Organisations / universities, are focused on business schools. The TARGETED-MPI project - Transparent and Resilient Gender Equality Through Integrated Monitoring Planning and Implementation aims to address this gap by understanding and addressing gender inequality in business schools through the implementation and monitoring of Gender Equality Plans. TARGETED-MPI is supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and includes five project partners: Athens University of Economics and Business, Greece; Lancaster University (ULANC), United Kingdom; Stockholm School of Economics (SSE), Sweden; Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Belgium; and, American University of Beirut (AUB), Lebanon.

Business schools face a number of challenges when it comes to achieving gender equality. For example, what can be considered an asset within B&M schools – the diversity of its employees - can also serve as a hurdle preventing gender equality. Academics employed in these institutions come from a variety of disciplines, including STEMM subjects (e.g., mathematics, statistics, operational research and information systems/technology), but also social sciences, arts, and humanities. These academics represent different intellectual traditions, epistemological and ontological perspectives, approaches to understanding and methods for creating new knowledge, organisational socialisation practices, ways of working, and perspectives on the world around them.

This diversity can lead to innovative and creative approaches towards research problems and teaching. But, because hiring practices and salaries are often tied to larger competitive market forces, some systemic organisational inequalities become manifest within business schools, which makes gender equality efforts especially complex. Deeply rooted cultural practices and a lack of transparency within hiring and promotion practices, research collaboration, and teaching allocation, especially across departments and disciplines within B&M schools, can affirm and entrench inequalities. One-size-fits-all solutions either fail to adequately address the problems or create unintended negative consequences.

Gender inequality was a problem for business schools even before the Covid-19 pandemic; but reports show that women’s working lives have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic.  In higher education, for instance, women’s research output (as measured by publication submissions) has decreased during the lockdown periods in the UK). As HE institutions struggle to survive the pandemic and resulting economic recessions and downturns, there is concern that gender equality efforts already in place prior to the pandemic may be postponed, or even abandoned, in an effort to streamline and conserve resources.

Projects like TARGETED-MPI are therefore timely and of crucial importance, providing a focus on  bespoke gender equality projects that analyse and understand the unique gender dynamics for business schools, and that implement targeted changes that are appropriate to those unique contextual characteristics.

Guided by a theoretical framework rooted in critical perspectives, organisational culture theory, feminist theory and ideas of gender neutrality, this project considers the ways in which gender inequality is culturally constructed. Through innovative and unique diagnostic tools, the project will illuminate the taken-for-granted and underlying attitudes, values, and assumptions that prevent gender equality efforts within business schools.

Collaborative conversations with project partners and iterative analysis of gender equality theory and organisational practice will facilitate the creation and implementation of Gender Equality Plans (GEPs) specific for each partner university. The GEPs include specific tasks and practices that address issues of discrimination such as slowed career progression, gender pay gap, and lack of women in leadership positions. The GEPs move beyond generalised discussions on gender discrimination to focus on the needs and constraints of the specific partner school. With this knowledge, the GEPs can then create tasks to address the named barriers. The partnering of structurally and geographically diverse business schools adds depth and richness to our understanding of gender equality within business schools and requires the TARGETED-MPI team to think beyond one-size-fits-all responses and solutions to the generic outcomes of gender inequality.

The GEPs will set key benchmarks for improvement and rely on outside monitoring to make sure the partner schools meet their expected deadlines. While acknowledging and preserving the need for context and organisation specific gender equality plans, the project hopes to conclude with ‘best practices’ that can inspire other business Schools in their own gender equality efforts.

Gender inequality patterns in business schools showed few signs of diminishing before the global pandemic hit. Unfortunately, the global pandemic and the resulting ‘she-session’ or ‘pink recession’  has had a disproportionate impact on women and girls and made it even more difficult for organisations to consider their gender equality efforts and plans. Organisations, including business schools, are facing unprecedented hardships and challenges related to lockdown measures, supply chain limitations, and employee burnout and stress. And, while it would be tempting to streamline organisational efforts to prioritize ‘essential only’ activity, we have a unique window of opportunity to incorporate gender equality into the very fabrics of how we organise B&M schools. As we reconsider our work practice, we can move gender inclusion and equality from a recreational and elective endeavour for which business school leaders aspire to a fundamental framework that guides our organisational decision-making. Guided by the findings of research projects such as TARGETED-MPI and projects like it, this is our opportunity to guide our post-pandemic workplace into a more gender inclusive and equal space.

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Robyn Remke, Claire Leitch , Valerie Stead , Sophie Alkhaled, Marina Yusupova and Konstantinos Zografos are a group of academics from Lancaster University Business School and Athens University of Economics and Business

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