Business Schools Need More Women Professors

Business is the most popular major at many American universities and colleges, and, like many of the businesses that hire their graduates, nearly every university or college business school proudly proclaims its commitment to diversity and inclusion. But there’s a serious and largely overlooked diversity problem inside business schools: the low number of women faculty members.


When I was an undergraduate business student, and later when I enrolled in an MBA program, I never thought of “business school professor” as a possible career. It was the late 1980s, the time of “greed is good”, and mostly I knew that I didn’t want to be Gordon Gekko like most of my classmates. It wasn’t until two of my professors suggested that I think about doing a Ph.D. program that the idea of becoming a professor occurred to me. I liked doing research, I liked teaching, and I realized that an academic career was a way to combine both of those interests.

In my experience as a student and as a professor, gender diversity among business school professors is critically important to the quality of business education. Business schools are training future managers and leaders, so business students need to experience different perspectives and learn how to function effectively in diverse workplaces. Also, faculty members are role models that can influence students’ interests. Research in economics courses indicates that women students were more interested in majoring in economics if the course was taught by a woman professor. A professor’s gender also makes a difference to business students’ academic experiences; if women students are in the minority in a classroom, they participate in discussions more often when the professor is a woman.

So why aren’t there more women professors in business schools? One answer lies in the numbers of women graduating from business degree programs. If we look at historical data from 2005 to 2015 (the most recent years for which data are available), we can see that the number of women graduates has increased over the past decade, but those increases are mostly due to increases in the total number of graduates. The percentage of women graduates has remained roughly the same, including the percentage graduating from doctoral (Ph.D.) programs, which is where future business school professors are likely to be trained.

The percentage of women who are full-time faculty members has not changed significantly over this time, even though the numbers of women graduating from Ph.D. programs has increased. The number of full-time faculty members isn’t a completely accurate measure of women’s presence among business school faculty, since there are variations in the numbers of women in different professorial ranks and in different types of faculty employment. But the only discipline in business schools where full-time women faculty members consistently outnumber their male counterparts is “business communication”. Women faculty members in business schools are more likely to be in disciplines such as human resource management — the same type of occupational “pink ghettos” that women managers and executives experience in organizations.

Business schools also face some specific challenges in encouraging students to enter doctoral programs in business or to become professors. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business are generally perceived by students as job preparation, not as pathways to further academic study. Most MBA programs focus on developing students’ managerial skills, so they aren’t the pipelines into doctoral programs that they are in other academic disciplines — in disciplines like finance, there are attractive, well-paying career opportunities outside of academia. For women students in particular, there are often larger issues of balancing academic and family commitments and of being able to afford the cost of master’s or doctoral programs.

Nevertheless, business schools can and should do much more to promote academic careers as an option for women. Encouraging students to think about becoming a professor is a strategy that can be used by professors of any gender — the two professors that suggested I consider doing a Ph.D. were both men. The personal approach may be especially effective in attracting women to business school disciplines with the lowest numbers of women professors, such as operations research and management information systems. Getting students involved in faculty members’ research projects, even at the undergraduate level, can spark an interest in the research component of academic jobs.

Business schools with their own Ph.D. programs can implement initiatives to recruit and support women doctoral students, much as the Ph.D. Project has done for the past 25 years for minority students. As well, business schools need to look not only at their practices around hiring women professors, but also at creating organizational cultures that can retain them. Professors who are women may be assigned more “academic housework”, such as mentoring or committee service; students may also treat women professors differently than men, such as expecting professors who are women to be more likely to grant favors like grade changes or test rewrites.

It’s time for business schools to get into the business of bringing more women into academic careers.

Dr. Fiona McQuarrie

Dr. Fiona McQuarrie is a professor in the School of Business at the University of the Fraser Valley. She blogs on work and organizational issues at All About Work.