Why Understanding Gender Is An Essential Part of A Business Education

By Susan Duffy, Executive Director, Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership, Babson College

When it comes to gender, many business schools are behind the times.

The curriculum at many of today’s top business schools presents an outdated vision of business leadership. Students spend hours poring over case studies that disproportionately feature CEOs and key decision makers who are men. Only 11% of the 74 most popular cases from 2009 to 2015 had a woman protagonist,1 and nearly half didn’t include any women at all.(a)

Research shows that this marginalization of women runs throughout the business school curriculum, from the language used in classrooms2 to the representations of entrepreneurship presented in academic studies.3 It is even reflected in the faculty: Typically just 15% to 25% of professors at top business schools are women.4

Business schools can either continue to reflect an outdated worldview or start preparing students for a more inclusive future. In today’s economy, gender acumen is a requisite leadership skill: understanding gender is essential for optimizing relationships with employees, customers, and colleagues. We expect M.B.A. programs to expose students to a variety of business sectors and a community with experiences ranging from entrepreneurship and corporate leadership to finance and marketing. Shouldn’t gender – as well as race, ethnicity, and other forms of social diversity – be equally important?

How business schools tackle this challenge has implications far beyond our campuses. As the pipeline for tomorrow’s leaders, we help set the tone for the broader business community.5 If we continue to train students to envision CEOs, entrepreneurs, and innovators as men, we’ll have a hard time changing the fact that women are still significantly underrepresented in key leadership roles.(b) A third of companies worldwide have no women on their boards or in top “C-suite” positions.6 In North America, only 15% of companies have a woman on their executive team and just 4% have a woman CEO.6

Fostering a more inclusive environment isn’t just about fairness and equal opportunity for women and other marginalized groups. It’s also good for business. Numerous studies have found that greater gender diversity on boards and in corporate leadership positions is associated with greater profitability and higher stock values.6,7

Inclusivity also benefits students of all genders, as research shows that more diverse educational environments promote learning.8 This is especially important in business schools, where working in teams and learning from peers is an essential part of the educational experience. For example, a 2013 study randomly assigned undergraduate business students into teams to start a venture together. Mixed-gender teams had better sales and profits than those that were predominantly composed of men.9

For business schools that want to lead the way on gender, the first step is to take stock of how the institution currently represents itself. At Babson, we’ve analyzed the diversity of the case studies used in our core curriculum, the speakers and panelists featured at major events, and the students participating in important programs and leadership roles.

This review helped identify areas where we are now making a concerted effort to promote a more inclusive view of business leadership. We’re creating a database of case studies featuring women protagonists for faculty to use when developing their courses. We require that all school-funded events and conferences strive for gender balance in panels and speakers. There are many other ways business schools are promoting gender inclusivity, from revamping admissions and financial aid to changing curricula and facilitating discussions around gender.10

In the long run, it’s important that schools stop confining discussions of gender to women-centric events and material, and begin to normalize gender diversity throughout the curriculum. Studies show that when business lessons and research feature women or discuss gender, they are often targeted to women students or identified as being exclusively about gender or diversity.3 Instead, these materials should be presented as a natural part of a comprehensive business school curriculum.

Understanding gender is essential for all business students, which is why at Babson we work gender awareness into the core curriculum in addition to offering targeted, optional events and activities. In order to be leaders, our students need to be exposed to diversity and understand how gender dynamics affect their teams, their products, and their bottom line.

Change has to start at the beginning of the pipeline of future business leaders or else we’ll continue to replicate the same imbalances. Business schools steer the direction of the broader business community by educating future CEOs, entrepreneurs, and managers and by producing influential research and ideas.5 Gender equity isn’t just a problem for us to solve, it’s an opportunity for us to lead. If we innovate around how we understand and teach gender, we can offer students a cutting-edge education that will prepare them for long-term success as effective leaders and champions for diversity.

Dr. Susan Duffy is the Executive Director of the Babson College Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL), where she educates, inspires and empowers women to transform their entrepreneurial potential into social and economic impact. She earned a Ph.D. in Management and Organization from The George Washington University, and is an advisor to a number of early stage companies, an angel investor, and a member of several boards and advisory councils. Visit CWEL online at www.babson.edu/cwel and follow them on Twitter @CWELBabson.


(a) The total pool of potential case studies is even less diverse. In an internal review of over 12,000 cases published in the past twenty years by Harvard Business School, the preeminent source of case studies, we found that only 0.5% (61 studies) featured a woman protagonist.

(b) This is no longer an issue of a lack of talent at lower levels in the business pyramid. More women than men have a college degree. Women make up almost half of the workforce and hold 39% of management jobs.


1. Symons, Lesley (2016) “Only 11% of Top Business School Case Studies Have a Female Protagonist,” Harvard Business Review, March 9. Men were the protagonists in 84% of the case studies, and four studies did not have a clear protagonist.

2. Bauer Jr., Richard J., and Julie R. Dahlquist (1999) "Recognizing And Eliminating Gender Bias In Finance Education," Financial Practice & Education, 9(1): 83-91.

3. Hamilton, Eleanor (2013) "The Discourse Of Entrepreneurial Masculinities (And Femininities)," Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, 25(1/2): 90-99. Fältholm, Ylva, Lena Abrahamsson, and Eva Källhammer (2010) "Academic Entrepreneurship - Gendered Discourses And Ghettos," Journal Of Technology Management & Innovation, 5(1): 51-63.

4. Symons, Lesley (2015) “Global Gender Balance Scorecard: Focus on Businesss Schools,” 20-First.

5. Smith, Catherine R. (2000) "Notes From The Field: Gender Issues In The Management Curriculum: A Survey Of Student Experiences," Gender, Work & Organization, 7(3): 158-167.

6. Noland, Marcus, Tyler Moran, and Barbara Kotschwar (2016) Is Gender Diversity Profitable? Evidence from a Global Survey, Working paper 16-3, Peterson Institute for International Economics.

7. Erhardt, Niclas L., James D. Werbel, and Charles B. Shrader (2003) “Board of Director Diversity and Firm Financial Performance,” Corporate Governance: An International Review, 11: 102–11. Carter, David, Frank P. D’Souza, Betty J. Simkins, and W. Gary Simpson (2007) “The Diversity of Corporate Board Committees and Firm Financial Performance,” Working paper, Department of Finance, Oklahoma State University. Devillard, Sandrine, Wieteke Graven, Emily Lawson, Renée Paradis, and Sandra Sancier-Sultan (2012) Women Matter: Making the Breakthrough, McKinsey & Company. Carter, Nancy M., and Harvey M. Wagner (2011) “The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards (2004–2008),” Catalyst Inc.

8. Bowman, N. A. (2010) “College diversity experiences and cognitive development: A meta-analysis,” Review of Educational Research, 80(1): 4-33. Nelson Laird, Thomas F. (2005) “College Students’ Experiences with Diversity and Their Effects on Academic Self-Confidence, Social Agency, and Disposition toward Critical Thinking,” Research in Higher Education, 46(4): 365-87.

9. Hoogendoorn, Sander, Hessel Oosterbeek, and Mirjam van Praag (2013) "The Impact of Gender Diversity on the Performance of Business Teams: Evidence from a Field Experiment," Management Science, 59(7): 1514.

10. The White House (2014) “Best Practices for Business Schools to Lead in Expanding Opportunities for Women in Business and to Adapt to the 21st-Century Workforce,” Washington, D.C. Mills, Albert J. (1998) "Gender, Bureaucracy, and the Business Curriculum." Journal of Management Education, 21(3): 325-42.

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