The rise of the #metoo movement combined with regular media cases of sexism and discrimination underline that gender equality is far from being achieved. Yet while many inequalities persist, the pressure for equality is undimmed. Many push for equality from a moral or human rights perspective yet there is also a ‘business case’ for a more gender equal society. This business case is evident in the worldwide market for business education and thus an opportunity for Business Schools to make their ‘contribution to societal wellbeing’, as outlined in the RRBM 2030 Vision.
Gender Equality and the Business Case
The business case for gender equality is based upon the notion that it makes good business sense to reduce inequalities. Organisations can benefit from the more effective use of human resources, reputational benefits or simply through efficiencies of having processes that treat people fairly. For example, a number of studies reveal that a higher share of women on executive boards can have positive impacts upon innovations, performance, risk and sustainability. An extension of the business case is the economic case which underlines the societal benefits of gender equality for educational resources, economic growth, fertility rates and/or health outcomes.
These approaches marked a rupture with researchers, politicians and campaigners who had previously emphasized an approach based largely on compliance with laws and because it is the right thing to do. Gender quality is a fundamental human right embodied in laws, European Union actions and most recently in the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.
While there are concerns that a sole focus on the economic or financial benefits might rule out some policies that are morally justified yet seemingly expensive, the business case can be considered a lever for greater equality between girls and boys and women and men – indeed a lever that Business Schools can be influential in using to promote benefits for both business and broader society.
The Business School, the Business Case
Education, and particularly business education, provides an example of how this business case can work in action since for Business Schools there are some clear financial, economic and reputational benefits. Furthermore their stakeholders are among those who can benefit from the dissemination and impact of responsible research demonstrating the positive spin offs of gender equality.
Firstly, business education has become rapidly de-segregated from a position of being largely male-dominated 30 years ago, female graduates now make up at least half of all those leaving business schools – regularly outperforming men. While there remains gender imbalances among subject areas – for example IT or sales (male dominated) and human resources (female dominated) – business education has made more progress than engineering and STEM subjects.
For Business Schools working with leading employers, keen to promote and protect their reputations, there is an opportunity to develop partnerships and share research on how to promote gender equality. Such actions may include the promotion of non-standard career paths for female and male students since employing organisations, like Business Schools, also need access to all talents and performance benefits.
Furthermore equipping male and female students with an understanding of the gendered processes that shape organisational and societal outcomes is a critical business skill for analysing the future. Graduates that appreciate the impact of norms, cultures and assumptions shaping their lives are also equipped to transform organisations and societies for the better.
A recent study of students in business schools revealed that awareness of gender equality develops in more gender-mixed groups. By training students and academics to work with gender diversity, Business School graduates can become agents for change.
Equally both Business Schools and their stakeholders need to demonstrate their duty of care with effective practices to promote equality and protect against harassment. This includes disseminating research on practices to neutralise and change cultures while providing their own supportive and welcoming environment.
External Pressures for the Business Case
Furthermore top Business Schools are subject to common pressures from accreditations agencies that require compliance with certain standards. The top three accreditations – AACSB, EQUIS & AMBA – place an emphasis on social responsibilities of which gender equality is one. This includes reporting of various statistics and demonstrating practices to support women students and faculty. Among many UK universities the Athena Swan programme has been widely adopted while in France, for example, a Charter for Gender Equality among the Grandes Ecoles was signed in 2013.
In addition, rankings for business schools and programmes play an important role in the reputation of qualifications. These rankings are based on the quality of research and teaching but also the composition of staff and students – including the gender balance. Recent MBA rankings demonstrate the benefits of having a gender-balanced staff and students as well as dedicated initiatives at Business Schools such as Edinburgh Business School, Grenoble Ecole de Management and University of South California.
A Brighter Future?
In spite of these common forces there are also countervailing pressures that mean progress towards gender quality cannot be taken for granted. Business Schools cannot be complacent simply because they have more gender-balanced staff or students ratios than other disciplines. Recent research suggests that as some gender gaps close others open up and create new inequalities. Furthermore progress against gender pay gaps has largely stalled and there remains resistance to change. In this context Business Schools’ research and teaching can underline the range of societal benefits for equality and also provide protection against, at times, retrograde actions and trends.
There are advantages for society, organisations and individuals of Business Schools being active agents for change towards gender equality. Progress will only be made by a multi-faceted approach that includes all stakeholders – state, business, universities, NGOs and individuals — since gender inequalities are persistent and dynamic. Business Schools, at the forefront of multidisciplinary research and teaching, are uniquely placed to be one of the key actors and provide a service to their stakeholders and wider society in promoting gender equality.
Mark SMITH is Dean of Faculty at Grenoble Ecole de Management. Severine LELOARNE is Professor & Head of Research Chair in Women & Economic Renewal (FERE) at Grenoble Ecole de Management and Susan NALLET is Director Student Experience & Employability at Grenoble Ecole de Management.