Top business schools continue progress toward gender parity of their student bodies. Despite this progress, many top schools are struggling to effectively address an academic performance gap between male and female students. While pipeline issues have long been suspected as a leading cause of this performance gap, new research from academics at Columbia Business School probes deeper into underlying factors contributing to the gender performance gap.
Through a series of empirical studies, including a survey of MBA students at a top business school and a review of archival performance data (e.g., grades, GMAT scores) from multiple cohorts of students, the researchers uncover two driving causes of the performance gap: the background of students and their behavior in MBA classrooms.
The new research brings hard evidence to an issue that has been widely debated in recent years largely on the basis of anecdotes and opinions. The new studies show—consistently for several recent student cohorts—that the gender performance gap in MBA students exists primarily in technically-oriented classes like accounting and finance, but not in socially-oriented classes like leadership and marketing.
“These findings shed new light on the scope and source of the gender performance gap at top business schools,” said Michael Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership at Columbia Business School and an author of the study. “But more importantly, they offer business school leaders directions for policies to effectively redress the grade gap.”
Background – Interests and Aptitudes
One source of the performance gap in technical-oriented classes is students’ backgrounds. Interests were assessed from entering students’ admissions applications as well as their responses to career counseling inventories. Not unexpectedly, given that psychological studies find consistent gender differences in interests from childhood onward, results revealed that more female students fit the “poet” interest profile and more men the “quant” profile.
A similar difference appeared when looking at GMAT scores, which was more surprising to the researchers given that such aptitudes do not appreciably differ by gender in the general MBA population.
These initial findings establish what top MBA programs are up against. From the very first day of the programs, male and female students differ on average in their interests, aptitudes, and the prior experiences that go along with them. This, in turn, gives rise to a key gender norm contributing to the performance gap: an expectation that female students have prowess in some areas and men in other areas.
Behavior – Public Assertiveness or Private Effort
Beyond the performance differences elicited directly by student backgrounds, the research shows that another source of the gender gap is how female students behave in response to gender norms during the MBA program. According to the studies, female students show less public assertiveness, especially in technically-oriented classes, whether measured by their own report or by that of the peers. Female students who fared worse in technical classes tended to be those who hedged their assertiveness, as active learning (i.e., class discussions and study group meetings) is essential for mastering the material.
“In this context, assertiveness means asking questions of peers and professors that help elucidate class material – plain and simple,” says author Aaron Wallen, Executive Director of the Management Division at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, and a former Lecturer at Columbia Business School.
“Our research shows that female students far too often hold back and hesitate to ask the kinds of questions that would help them better master technical concepts and procedures, perhaps because it is inconsistent with the established gender norms linking men with technical ability. This has a profound effect on their overall achievement in MBA classes.”
Fortunately, the studies show that female students do not internalize the gender norm, which would be reflected in their reduced academic effort. On the contrary, female students put in more private studying effort than male students, a result that held both in self-reports and the objective record of usage of the school’s tutoring services. The researchers conclude that this suggests that female students may recognize the costs of their reduced assertiveness and compensate somewhat by putting in extra effort in private.
Recommendations for Improvement
The authors offer recommendations for how leaders can institute policies that help close the achievement gap. They challenge some proposed fixes, suggesting that increasing the proportion of the class to 50% female will not solve the problem without prior measures to fix the pipeline of qualified female candidates. Some recommendations for increasing the supply of talented female applicants to top MBA programs include:
- Sponsor programs that introduce technically-oriented female undergraduates to top MBA programs.
- Conduct specific outreach to students in existing STEM programs who may not have considered an MBA degree.
- Reduce required prior work experience so that students can enroll at a younger age.
The authors also suggest recommendations for how to address the problem of gender norms and assertiveness. As they note in the paper:
“Interventions for assertiveness often focus on women’s confidence or body language. But this misses the point. ‘Lean in’ interventions that address the roots of the problem would work better than ‘lean on’ interventions that suppress its symptoms.”
They recommendations include training faculty and students in skills for eliciting and managing the participation of the people around them, a skill-set that is valuable in any work setting.