' ); } ?>

Gender Bias and the Power of Business Schools to Transform People and Organizations

“Your responses suggested a strong automatic association for male with leader and female with supporter.” That was the message displayed immediately after I completed the Implicit Association Test on Gender and Leadership (IAT). That was many years ago and the message is still etched in my mind. To say I was exasperated by the results would be an enormous understatement.

Although difficult to swallow, the message was important to hear. It became an important factor shaping my development as a leader. I started following research in a broader range of behavioral sciences and posing new questions to gather insights from the experience of others. Of course, one of my objectives was to become a better person. But, like everything in my life, another was to explore what it will take for business schools to “move the needle” in reducing gender bias.

Many organizations offer internal training programs designed to help people shed their biases. Sadly, there is not much evidence such programs have changed mindsets or behaviors, much less improved diversity. It is difficult (some say impossible) to change habits of mind shaped by the environment and biology over thousands of years. A few studies have found that diversity training can even exacerbate unwanted behaviors, especially if the training is mandatory. 

Fortunately, most students turn to business schools because they want to change, not because they are forced to. Many business schools offer programs that are truly transformational for individuals. And, in recent years through our work at Global Business School Network (GBSN), I’ve talked with hundreds of educators working hard to improve their courses, making them more personalized, contextually relevant, experiential, social, and interdisciplinary. 

However, to focus on advances in teaching risks, leaving out the most important point when it comes to the business schools making a difference. It is also about research. To me, it has always been the combination of both that drives business school impact and positions business schools particularly well to address the most challenging issues in business. 

To illustrate, it is useful to return to the Implicit Association Test on Gender and Leadership. What struck me at the time was that much more was at stake than my personal developmental needs. The test was about the lens through which I view leadership potential and that has implications for one of the most important processes in any organization, how it identifies and selects leaders. 

Unfortunately, managers systematically underestimate the potential of women. Using data on nearly 30,000 management-track employees in a large North American retail chain, scholars from the University of Minnesota, MIT, and Yale found “that women receive substantially lower potential ratings despite having higher job performance ratings.” One reason, not the only one, is that people find it difficult to imagine women as leaders because the qualities stereotypically associated with leadership are also stereotypically associated with men, just like the results of the Implicit Association Test suggest.

Of course, past performance does not perfectly predict future performance, especially when higher-level positions often require different skills. That’s why measures of potential were developed in the first place—to inform promotions. According to the study, however, “women subsequently outperformed their male colleagues with the same potential ratings.” Yet, the tendency to underestimate the potential of women persisted. That not only prevents qualified women from being promoted, but also keeps the company from achieving its full potential!

The authors admit solutions are neither obvious nor easy. Ignoring measures of potential, for example, can eliminate the gender promotion gap, “but would also decrease the average performance of workers who are selected to be promoted.” Another approach, increasing the potential ratings of women who earn high performance ratings, can reduce the gender promotion gap without sacrificing performance, but will be challenging to implement. 

My point by elaborating on this example is that it is one thing to change the way individuals think about leadership and gender, it is quite another to transform the way organizations handle evaluations and promotions. To “move the needle” in reducing gender bias, business schools must work on both individuals and organizations. Unless we change the systems and cultures of an organization, even good people will continue to make bad (biased) decisions no matter how much training they receive. Put another way: Individuals can’t drive change in organizations unless they understand what works and what doesn’t work, and why. 

To develop people AND organizations we need to leverage (and strengthen) both teaching AND research, and the connections between them. I believe teaching that is devoid of scholarship is hollow; and research without teaching has limited impact. We discuss improvements in teaching often, but the transformative power of business schools also comes from research. We must work harder to maintain and enhance the credibility of our research (especially in light of recent high-profile cases), increase its relevance to practice and in different contexts, and engage/connect communities in ways that make it more impactful. These are reasons why I continue to be involved with the Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM) network and participate on the judging panel for the academic research category of FT’s Responsible Business Education awards. Personally, I believe schools need to emphasize quality and impact over volume and elevate our commitment to interdisciplinary research to include, for example, biology and urban studies.

It is important to note that GBSN goes beyond. In addition to individuals and organizations, GBSN members aspire to transform communities and broader society. We care about the extent to which both individuals and organizations are contributing to and accelerating inclusive and sustainable growth. That generates a larger set of questions about business and society and calls for even stronger connections between teaching and research—and innovating on both. It is also why GBSN schools are powered not only by a combination of strong teaching and research, but also a strong commitment to community engagement.

Dan LeClair, CEO

Dan LeClair was named CEO of the Global Business School Network (GBSN) in February of 2019. Prior to GBSN, Dan was an Executive Vice President at AACSB International, an association and accrediting organization that serves some 1,600 business schools in more than 100 countries. His experience at AACSB includes two and half years as Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, seven years as Chief Operating Officer, and five years as Chief Knowledge Officer. A founding member of the Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM) initiative, Dan currently participates on its working board. He also serves in an advisory capacity to several organizations and startups in business and higher education. Before AACSB, Dan was a tenured associate professor and associate dean at The University of Tampa.

Dan played a lead role in creating a think-tank joint venture between the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) and AACSB and has been recognized for pioneering efforts in the formation of the UN’s Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), where he served on the Steering Committee for many years. Dan has also participated in industry-level task forces for a wide range of organizations, including the Chartered Association of Business Schools, Graduate Management Admission Council, Executive MBA Council, and Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program.

Widely recognized as a thought leader in management education, Dan is the author of over 80 research reports, articles, and blogs, and has delivered more than 170 presentations in 30 countries. As a lead spokesperson for reform and innovation in management education, Dan has been frequently cited in a wide range of US and international newspapers, magazines, and professional publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, China Daily, Forbes, Fast Company, and The Economist. Dan earned a PhD from the University of Florida writing on game theory.