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MBA Programs

For Female Faculty, a B-School Glass Ceiling

It’s lonely at the top. That adage could be the mantra of female faculty at business schools across the country who have reached the coveted and most prestigious step of their career ladder, full professor. The number of women who’ve obtained the full professor rank in B-schools remains dispiritingly low, with fewer than one of five women business school professors employed today as full professors, according to a 2010-11 salary survey of female faculty by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), one of the leading accreditation agencies for business schools.

Women may still be far from a majority at most business schools, but the overall number entering the field has been steadily creeping upwards. Over the past 10 years, the number of female business school faculty climbed from 23.6 percent of total faculty in the 2001-02 academic year to 29 percent this year, according to the survey. The uptick comes as more women are considering careers as business professors; in the 2009-10 academic year, women made up 35.4 percent of doctoral students at AACSB-member schools, up from 31.7 percent five years ago. Despite the growing number of women entering the business school world, many appear to hit a stumbling block on the path to promotion, says John Fernandes, AACSB’s president. Women make up 40.6 percent of instructors and 37.3 percent of assistant professors. As women move up the career ladder and obtain tenure, the gender gap becomes more pronounced. Women make up just 29.1 percent of associate professors and a paltry 17.9 percent of full professors.

"That is a huge drop-off rate," Fernandes says. "I see the number of women faculty members in the classroom continue to change and increase, but I’m not so sure it is increasing at a rate that is acceptable to the schools themselves and to society as a whole."


For faculty themselves, tenure and full professorships mean higher salaries, fewer teaching responsibilities, and more opportunities to publish. For business schools and society, though, the stakes are even higher. At top business schools, where women account for about 30 percent of enrollment, the dearth of viable role models among faculty may be one reason why. And the lack of women attending B-school is one reason, among many, that the corporate world is dominated by men at the most senior levels. "The whole way we do business education is still this very male, competitive model," says Catharine Curran, an associate professor of marketing at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Charlton College of Business, who has conducted research on gender issues in academia and business schools. "Women get really turned off by the whole manner in which business schools operate."

There appears to be no one simple explanation for why it is taking women so long to advance in their careers at business schools. The challenges that come along with balancing family life and academia, the structure of the tenure system, subtle sexual discrimination and bullying, and a lack of mentorship programs for female faculty are just some of the reasons women may be hitting stumbling blocks on the road to full professorship, according to interviews with more than half a dozen deans, women professors, and industry experts. Another complicating factor? There is less turnover in the full-professor pool than at other ranks, making it challenging for women to break into disciplines that are primarily male-dominated, says Denise Schoenbachler, dean of Northern Illinois University’s College of Business and chairwoman of AACSB’s Women Administrators in Management Education group.

"You still have a pool of folks who started way before women even started thinking about academia," says Schoenbachler. "At many schools, you still have full professors who have been there 20 years or more and until they rotate through, the percentages will remain diluted by that."


Of Bloomberg Businessweek’s 30 top-ranked full-time MBA programs that reported faculty data for the 2010-11 academic year, the median percentage of tenured faculty who are women is 17.6 percent. At some schools, the percentage of women faculty holding tenure was in the single digits. For example, of the 75 faculty who hold tenure at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management in Utah, only three women, or 4 percent, hold tenure. At the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, just four of the 68 tenured faculty, or 5.8 percent, are female. At about one-third of the top 30 schools, women make up 20 percent or more of tenured faculty, including the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management—which until recently was headed by Alison Davis-Blake, the school’s first female dean—has 26 percent tenured women faculty, the highest percentage of the top 30 schools.

The majority of schools fall somewhere in the middle, like the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, where currently seven of the 44 tenured faculty, or about 16 percent, are women. Of those seven, three are full professors, says Jennifer Conrad, Kenan-Flagler’s associate dean for academic affairs. The school is working to increase the number of women professors but has faced some stumbling blocks along the way. For example, a few of the women the school wanted to hire in the past few years accepted jobs at universities in urban areas because of their husband’s work situation. In other instances, the school has lost promising associate women professors to other schools, Conrad says. In such fields as finance, competition for recent female PhD graduates can be fierce.

"It is a game of small numbers," Conrad says. "It is clearly getting better on the supply side. As we get more women in doctoral programs in certain areas, it will make it easier for us to hire them."


It typically takes a female assistant professor about six years to obtain tenure and become an associate professor, a point in their careers when many women fall off the full-professor track. Those years often occur at the time when women want to have children, and many struggle with balancing career and family. In the past decade or two, many schools have become more attuned to that and instituted "stop the clock" tenure policies that allow women and men who are assistant professors to take a year off to raise a baby or for other extenuating family circumstances. Women are increasingly taking advantage of these policies, but doing so can sometimes have a negative impact on their career progression. "Technically, on paper, the policies are more family friendly," says UMass’s Curran. "But that doesn’t always translate to career progression."

Other things can hamper a women’s career progression at a business school, Curran says. During a session on gender issues she ran a few years back at a conference for marketing professors, women spoke about how they would often be excluded from faculty activities, such as attending a basketball game or going on a golf outing, because of their gender. They also felt that their colleagues took them less seriously because they were often assigned to less prestigious faculty committees, like the university birthday or centennial committee, rather than the weightier research resource or curriculum overhaul committees, she says.

"It is subtle little things that men don’t think about that make business schools hostile to women," says Curran.


Toni Whited, a professor of finance at the University of Rochester’s Simon School of Business, says it took her eight years to move from associate to full professor at her former employer, the Wisconsin School of Business, part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During that eight-year period at Wisconsin, she produced an impressive amount of research, including eight studies that were published in academic journals, and won several awards for her work. She later learned the two men promoted after her had published only two journal articles before being named full professor, she says.

"At first, I thought this was what it took. Then I realized, this isn’t what it takes," says Whited, who moved to Simon last July after being recruited by the provost. "It’s that old saying that you have to be twice as good. When you work really hard and don’t get appreciated, it doesn’t work out."

Women who try to break into tenure-track roles after having been adjuncts or instructors face a different type of hurdle. Susan Adams received her PhD from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1993 but decided not to pursue a tenure-track job at the time because her three children were between the ages of five and 10. Instead, she became a part-time adjunct professor at the University of California-Irvine, a job with a more flexible schedule, and later joined Bentley University’s McCallum Graduate School of Business as a part-time instructor and administrator. She struggled with the implications of that decision but ultimately decided to pursue a tenure-track role. Her history as an adjunct became a thorn in her side when she looked for jobs with tenure, she says.

"I paid a price. It was harder than I thought it would be, because you get typecast, and it is real," says Adams, who eventually received a tenure-track job at Bentley, where she is now a full professor of management. "People see you as an adjunct, that is who you are, and you get labeled really fast. It becomes a problem."


Some women professors have sought a more definitive answer to why so many women faculty remain at the middle or bottom levels of the academic pyramid. Shani D. Carter, a professor of management at Rhode Island College’s School of Management, decided to tackle this question when she noticed that many tenured women at the schools where she taught over the years chose not to pursue a promotion to full professor.

She studied data from 1988 to 2004 from the U.S. Education Dept.’s National Study of Postsecondary Faculty and found that during that 16-year period, women made little headway in closing the B-school gender gap in full professor ranks. In 1988, only 6.4 percent of women business faculty were full professors, while 18.9 percent of men held that title. By 2004, the number of women who obtained the full professor rank in business crept up to 13.8 percent, while the number of men becoming full professors soared to nearly 40 percent.

Similar to the corporate world, women face increasing levels of opposition as they rise through the ranks, Carter says, a phenomenon she dubbed "pushback" in her paper on the topic. In the paper, she proposed that "women face an increasingly hostile work environment after they obtain tenure, because some men feel increasingly threatened in their male identity when women obtain promotions," she wrote. That type of behavior may lead to female faculty being denied promotions, despite having similar qualifications as male faculty, and could also hinder women’s efforts to seek out promotions and leadership promotions, Carter says. For example, at an academic conference Carter attended in 2009, one woman mentioned a meeting she attended where faculty were discussing a course called Women in Management. A male professor at the meeting jokingly referred to the class as "Kittens in Management," says Carter.

"Those are the things that raise an eyebrow and you say, ‘What is going on here,’" says Carter, who presented her findings at the Academy of Human Resource Development’s annual conference last February and plans to publish them this year. "It is not the whole motherhood or mommy-track issues, that is the knee-jerk reaction."


Some business schools have taken a more critical look at the gender composition of their faculty and the role that gender bias plays. In academic year 2005-06, the University of California, Los Angeles, Anderson School of Management formed a Gender Equity Committee that sought an explanation behind the school’s low percentage of women faculty. At the time, just 9.9 percent of Anderson’s women faculty had tenure or were on the tenure track, making it the lowest-ranked of its top 20 peer business schools. But for the past 25 years, 20 percent of its faculty hires have consistently been women, making the problem all the more perplexing, says Barbara Lawrence, a co-chairman of the committee and a professor of human resources and organizational behavior at Anderson.

The committee spoke with 12 male and 12 female faculty for the study, studied historical hiring patterns, and simulated the expected results of the school’s hiring and turnover rates. They found that although tenure rates were similar for women and men, retention before tenure decisions was slightly lower for women. They also found that changing the composition of a faculty is difficult. Even with no retention differences, it would have taken an average of 31 years to achieve a faculty of 20 percent women. Meanwhile, women who had obtained tenure were "significantly more dissatisfied" than tenured men when it came to institutional and interpersonal relationships, evaluations, research support, salary negotiations, and workloads, the report noted.

"Women told stories of being denigrated in some way, like a faculty member telling them they couldn’t have an opinion because they hadn’t published in enough top journals," Lawrence says. "Many of the comments were seen as harmless, but my perception is that over time, these negative comments accumulated and shaped people’s perception of an individual."

Five years later things have improved, albeit slightly. Women have become more visible at the school, now making up 14.3 percent of Anderson’s faculty, Lawrence says. There are three more female full professors at the school and, in general, more camaraderie among female faculty, she notes. For example, Anderson Dean Judy Olian occasionally invites the school’s female professors to lunch, while Lawrence organizes a monthly get-together of women faculty. But other recommendations by the committee have languished, like instituting a sponsor system for new faculty members and studying in more detail women’s and men’s concerns about compensation, sexual harassment, and discrimination issues.

"I think things are changing for the better and people are more aware of the problem as a result of the study," Lawrence says. "But it still going to be a very difficult problem to solve."


While most institutions are still struggling to boost the number of women faculty, some lesser-known business schools have already managed to buck the trend. There are at least 10 B-schools where women make up more than 50 percent of tenured faculty, according to 2009-10 AACSB data. One is Marist College’s School of Management in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where currently eight of the 15 tenured faculty, or 53 percent, are women, says Thomas Wermuth, the college’s vice-president for academic affairs. The administration has actively helped promote women through such programs as the college’s Higher Education Leadership Initiative, started by the president four years ago to help move women professors through the different academic ranks and gain leadership skills, Wermuth says.

The program has already paid dividends. The school of management has three departments—management, accounting and economics, and organization—and women now chair all three. Two of the chairwomen are graduates of the college’s leadership initiative, and the school’s associate dean is a woman, providing several visible women role models for young professors, Wermuth points out. In addition, the school of management has launched a mentoring program, dubbed the Research and Teaching Excellence Initiative, that creates mentorship relationships between senior and junior faculty. The program is not gender specific, but the school will often pair junior female faculty with more senior women, he says. The pair then builds a relationship over brown bag lunches, research presentations, and other events organized by the school.

"I think both programs have built a good atmosphere that is conducive to women both accepting positions and coming to the school," says Wermuth. "They feel comfortable that there is a future for them here."

Join the discussion on the Bloomberg Businessweek Business School Forum and follow @BWbschools on Twitter.
Damast is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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