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Elevating the Equity Curve

The number of women leaders in higher education is rising, but not fast enough—what more can business schools do?

As business schools worldwide mark International Women’s Day, celebrating the achievements of women throughout both higher education and industry, it's also a good time for them to measure their progress toward achieving gender equity. Where does higher education stand?

One benchmark academic leaders might use as a point of comparison was just released: Times Higher Education’s annual World Rankings Data of higher institutions. THE’s data reveal that 41 of the top 200 universities in the world, according to the organization’s 2021 rankings, have women in senior roles.

This is largely good news. It marks the first time women have made up 20 percent of the world’s top academic leadership positions, up from 14 percent just six years ago. It’s also the first time their numbers have increased since 2017. Women now represent 24 percent of the leadership at the schools ranked 1 to 100 and 17 percent at schools ranked from 101 to 200.

But while women leaders have made gains at institutions in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Australia, the picture was slightly different in the United States. The number of female leaders of U.S. institutions in THE’s top 200 dropped overall—to 10 out of 59 (down from 13 out of 60 schools in 2019).

That said, with 10, the U.S. still has the most female presidents in the top-200 list. The U.K. comes in second with nine.

Ellie Bothwell, THE’s rankings editor, calls 2020’s gains “fantastic news” for gender equity, but also describes the pace of change as unacceptably slow. Since 2015, “there has been an average annual rise of just 1 percentage point,” Bothwell says. “If this rate continues, it will take another 30 years for full parity.”

Similar Trends in Business Education

Data on women’s leadership in business education mirrors THE’s numbers. Last year, for example, AACSB International selected Caryn Beck-Dudley as its CEO—the first woman to lead the association in its history. The industry also saw the high-profile appointment of Erika James as the first female dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In a recent AACSB Insights article, seven other women who took the helms of business schools in 2020 share their perspectives.

But even so, just 25.7 percent of deans at AACSB-member schools responding to the association’s 2020 Business School Questionnaire are women. That’s a modest increase from 2016–2017, when women held 23 percent of dean positions.

The percentage of women b-school deans is also disproportionate to their numbers elsewhere in the business school. For instance, women make up 37.9 percent of tenure-track faculty members at AACSB-member schools (barely up from 37 percent in 2016). That number slips to 35.4 percent of associate deans (up from 31.1 percent in 2016) and 29.5 percent among tenured professors (up from 26.6 percent in 2016).


Women are significantly outnumbered at the manager level. In 2020, they held just 38 percent of manager positions, while men held 62 percent.

What is causing women’s representation to diminish as they move from lower levels to upper levels of business schools and other organizations? Some argue that women’s tendency to negotiate less aggressively could be a contributing factor. Others call out implicit biases built into hiring and promotion processes, which research suggests can result in women receiving fewer promotions and worse performance evaluations than their male counterparts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored another contributing factor: Women are more likely to leave the workforce to take on caregiving roles. In fact, in their annual “Women in the Workplace” report, McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org warn that one in four women are considering taking career breaks or leaving the workforce altogether. The probable reason: Women have assumed the lion’s share of household tasks and childcare during the pandemic. This trend, according to the report, could erase all the advancements women have made in management over the last six years.  

The report also points to the “broken rung” phenomenon, in which women are less likely to make the leap to management positions than men—only 85 women are promoted to manager for every 100 men. “Women remained significantly outnumbered at the manager level at the beginning of 2020,” the report finds. “They held just 38 percent of manager positions, while men held 62 percent.”

Six-Step Action Plan

What will it take to overcome these obstacles hindering the advancement of women into leadership positions—especially within business schools? Below is a compilation of recommendations that several women—including five educators and one executive—offer to b-school administrators. These women hold that, by taking these steps, schools could achieve gender parity sooner rather than later:

1. Embrace inclusive leadership.

“The solution would not be [to ask], ‘Should they adapt, or should they be prepared differently to leadership roles?’” says Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger, rector of Vienna University of Economics. Instead, administrators should focus their efforts on “questioning … what it means to be an inclusive leader in terms of being competent, dealing with diversity, and having a commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

Watch her interview, “A Gender Perspective on Leadership Roles.”

2. Get serious about mentoring.

“We see a lot of women coming through the ranks. We see a lot of chairs. We see a lot of associate deans, directors. I think it’s important for deans, whether they are men or women, to be able to sponsor and mentor these future leaders,” says Tanuja Singh. Singh was formerly the dean of the St. Mary’s University Greehey School of Business in San Antonio, Texas. She now serves as provost and senior vice president at Loyola University in New Orleans.

“Take that opportunity and say, ‘I'm going to nominate you for the aspiring dean conference,’” Singh adds. “Once [women] come to these conferences, they see what an incredible opportunity it is to be able to make a difference in the lives of people they care about.”

Watch “Toward an Equitable Distribution of Gender in Academia.”

3. Counteract unconscious bias.

“Progress has stalled in the United States really in the past 10 years, and one of the things we're looking at is what is the role of unconscious bias in acting as indivisible glue that keeps culture stuck, despite all of the great programs and initiatives that we've launched,” says Lori Mackenzie, lead strategist of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Stanford Graduate School of Business in California. She discusses how organizations can work to block unconscious bias at the “frozen” level of middle management.


What is the role of unconscious bias in acting as indivisible glue that keeps culture stuck, despite all of the great programs and initiatives that we’ve launched?

“Grassroots efforts can really penetrate an organization,” she says. “How we evaluate performance influences employees all through the life cycle—how they’re hired, how they’re promoted, and how they’re given assignments.”

Watch “Blocking Unconscious Bias Through Diversity and Inclusion.”

4. Expand job candidate pools.

“We just need to expand the frame through which we traditionally identify candidates,” says Rebecca L. Ray, executive vice president, human capital, at The Conference Board. Although her purview is business organizations, her advice can be applied within business schools as well.

“Women who have been successful regional or divisional presidents, chief financial officers, chief human resources officers, successful academics, entrepreneurs, and retired management consultants often make solid candidates and would bring a diversity of experience as well as perspective to the boardroom.”

Read more in “Women on Boards: Are We There Yet?”

5. Fix broken talent pipelines.

“While the problems of gender equality in business schools have many aspects, some of the gender gaps can be traced to pipeline issues,” says Patricia Flynn, Trustee Professor of Economics and Management at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Flynn believes that business schools could achieve gender equity in their top leadership positions more quickly if they would take deliberate steps to fix their pipelines.

They could begin, she suggests, by encouraging more women professors to apply for associate dean and department chair positions; appointing more women as interim deans; and requiring executive search firms to provide a gender-diverse selection of potential candidates.

Read Flynn’s presentation, “Are Business Schools Helping to Reduce Gender Inequality in the Workplace –Or Not?”

6. Empower men to be allies.

A “focus on inclusive leadership … needs to be central to the culture of business school,” says Ellen Taafee, director of women’s leadership programs at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois. One way Kellogg supports inclusive leadership is through its Manbassadors Club. Similar groups now operate at many college campuses, part of the broader Men as Allies Initiative supported by the Forté Foundation.  

The club, says Taafee, “engages students in conversations about topics including how to build an inclusive culture when you are a leader at your company one day, and simply being more self-aware of workplace dynamics, like how often women are interrupted in meetings compared to men.”

Read the full Q&A with Taafee, “Promoting Women Leaders.”

Work in Progress

Luckily, many business schools already are putting recommendations such as these into practice. For instance, we recently highlighted three programs that were recognized among AACSB’s 2020 Innovations That Inspire. They include the Young Women in Leadership Programme at Massey University in New Zealand; the Terry Women’s Initiative at the University of Georgia in the U.S.; and WomenLead at Georgia State University, also in the U.S.

While these efforts are encouraging, many business leaders and academic leaders alike stress that there’s still much work to do. To what extent will business schools put the recommendations above to the test over the next year? What benchmarks will they reach? We hope educators worldwide take to heart the theme of this year's International Women's Day, #ChooseToChallenge—and that, by this time next year, they’ll have even greater progress to share.


Tricia Bisoux of AACSB InsightsTricia Bisoux is an editor with AACSB Insights.