Are Women in B-School Leadership Positioned for Success?

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Tuesday, June 15, 2021
Elliot Davis
Director of Data Strategy, AACSB International
Photo by iStock/tongpatong
A recent survey of member schools reveals the administrative positions most lacking women’s representation—and points to possible reasons why.

We are often asked about the percentage of women in business education leadership roles, and whether business schools have made any progress in placing more women into these positions in recent years. In AACSB’s triennial Deans Survey, conducted earlier this year, out of 356 business school deans representing 56 countries and territories, women made up just 27 percent of respondents. However, this percentage has actually increased from prior iterations of the survey, where women comprised 23 percent of participants in 2017 and 20 percent in 2014.

Many factors could contribute to this disparity, ranging from motivation to opportunity, and sometimes a combination of the two; where there is opportunity, there must also be a welcoming environment to motivate a minority candidate to apply. One of the more immediate areas that business schools can address is the pipeline through which deans are sourced. Based on our survey responses, women fill fewer of the typical feeder positions that lead to the dean role—a possible indication that business schools and higher education have not properly invested in cultivating a successful female talent pool.

The Business School Dean Pipeline

From AACSB’s student enrollment data, we know that 44 percent of those enrolled in doctoral business programs are women. Further, 93 percent of participating deans in the Deans Survey reported having obtained a doctoral degree. In terms of the typical degrees deans have in their background, many women coming up through the pipeline satisfy that expectation.

In looking at work experience, the 2021 Deans Survey data show that most business school deans come from academic positions, with just 3 percent having come from a non-academic career immediately prior to entering the deanship. Further, 72 percent of deans had more academic than professional experience prior to entering the new role. As such, the pipeline for the deanship is found squarely within higher education itself, and therefore it is imperative for business schools and universities to examine their internal policies and systems to ensure more equitable gender representation in the dean pipeline.

The position that the greatest number of deans held prior to becoming a dean for the first time is associate dean. Among current deans who responded to the survey, 31 percent entered the role after having held the position of associate dean immediately prior.

Table 1. Positions Held Prior to First Deanship, by Gender

Position Women (n=75) Men (n=220) Grand Total (n=295)
Associate Dean 31% 30% 31%
Department Head/Chair 25% 21% 22%
Other Academic 20% 11% 14%
Faculty Member 9% 14% 13%
Vice Dean 7% 11% 10%
Program Director 3% 8% 7%
Non-Academic (e.g., Government, Business, NGO/Nonprofit) 3% 3% 3%
Assistant Dean 3% 1% 2%

Source: AACSB 2021 Deans Survey. Note: Respondents were given the option to report their gender as “Other.” Those data are not reflected in the table above due to low selection rate for this option.

Among associate deans, however, just 38 percent are women, according to results from AACSB’s 2019-20 Staff Compensation and Demographics Survey. This is not to suggest that women are absent from administrative positions within the business school. The assistant dean position is composed of 62 percent women, making it nearly a complete reversal of the associate dean gender ratio. However, as evidenced by the above table, the assistant dean position produces just 2 percent of business school deans.

Women’s Leadership Representation

Other than assistant deans, women also make up the majority in several leadership positions, including career services directors (66 percent), communications/PR directors (76 percent), admissions directors (60 percent), and several others. But among the roles that feed neatly into the dean role, such as associate dean, vice dean, and department chair, women are not well represented. This does not necessarily mean that women are underrepresented in business school staff, nor even in leadership positions; rather, women less frequently fill the specific positions that are most often held by a business school dean prior to entering the role, and therefore the pool of potential female candidates for deanship is smaller than it is for male candidates.

At schools where women do serve as deans, survey data do not show apparent differences in the gender breakdown for other administrative roles. In fact, results show that slightly more women fill associate dean roles at schools led by a female dean (41 percent) than at schools led by a male dean (39 percent). So the general hiring practices, at least regarding gender representation, do not seem to differ at schools with female deans versus those with male deans. The underrepresentation of women seems to persist chiefly in the two highest administrative roles in the business school, regardless of women’s representation in other leadership positions.

When one school cultivates a strong female talent pool, another institution can benefit, and vice versa.

Also of note is that many deans are not hired internally. Instead, those accepting new dean positions often move to a new institution. According to our 2017-18 Deans Survey responses, 45 percent of deans were hired externally (n=595). So, while internal policies and systems are important for any business school to have in fostering a more diverse and inclusive workforce, when one school cultivates a strong female talent pool, another institution can benefit, and vice versa. The more women are represented in any given leadership position within each business school, the more frequently women can be represented in leadership roles throughout broader higher education, given its shared community of talent.

These statistics prompt many questions. Is the proportionality discrepancy in the percentage of female deans systemic, in that women are not given the opportunities to enter the typical pipeline positions, or are women less interested in entering those positions? Do business schools need to reassess what the experience makeup of a successful dean can look like? Is hiring deans from the associate dean position the most effective means for sourcing a dean, or should schools look at other forms of experience, such as the assistant dean role, which is occupied by more women?

Business schools and universities should look internally at the gender representation among their staff. Where there are significant differences between genders, the school should ask why. Each school will need a tailored plan to potentially change pathways to leadership and, ultimately, dean positions that they fill. The approach taken by a small private institution may not work for a large, multicampus public institution, for example. But investment in understanding and shifts at the beginning of a talent pipeline for each school can only improve the community of business school leaders and, therefore, business school education.

Elliot Davis
Director of Data Strategy, AACSB International
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