Gender Fatigue in MBA Programs

*By Julie Zeilinger

 Despite widespread satisfaction over the fact that women now constitute close to 50% of students in medical and law schools, it seems that the glass ceiling is still firmly in tact in the business realm; women currently constitute only 36.3% of students in MBA programs. What’s worse is that this statistic may point to a more serious cultural problem of “gender fatigue,” or the desire to ignore gender-based inequities despite pressing evidence that gender imbalances still exist.

The solution? Elisabeth K. Kelan of King’s College London and Rachel Dunkely Jones, a freelance researcher, both find fault not with the effort of business schools to encourage female applicants, but rather the fundamental, male-favoring model of these institutions. There is also the frustrating tendency of the students to ignore the problem of gender inequity, despite recognizing that it is both prevalent and regrettable. In interviews, students admitted that business schools tended to favor a traditionally male approach to leadership and decision-making/risk-taking, and sexism was prevalent academically and socially, yet they did not consider the problem serious enough to fully address or act on.
It seems that male business students ignore gender because they equate silence with showing acceptance and tolerance. Female students may ignore sexism out of the belief that hard work and determination will be enough for them to accomplish their goals. For these female students, ignorance may be bliss for now, but they will in fact have to address the problem eventually. After all, only 3% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women. Such denial, or “gender fatigue,” lets sexism and gender imbalance off the hook despite compelling evidence of their existence.    
The researchers suggest that to combat this issue, schools should make every "course a gender-aware course...Business students would then not think about gender as a special issue and be tempted to disregard it, learning rather that working with gender diversity is part of what it means to do that gender diversity and inclusion are not optional extras, but rather are seen as central to all business processes." Researchers also point to a progressive model, hoping that schools will teach their students the ability to “play the masculine game of business in ways that subtly change the rules.” Hopefully the business realm will realize that gender inclusion is not only worth talking about, but a factor that could change the business environment for the better.  

*Julie Zeilinger, current Communications intern with the National Council for Research on Women, is the founder and editor of The FBomb, a blog and community for teenage feminists. She is a senior at the Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio.  

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I am happy to report that some schools ARE changing the way they address gender fatigue - they include managing diversity as part of the curriculum. I am in fact running two tutorials at Oxford this summer as part of Georgetown's Graduate Program in International Management: Gender Equality (public policy focus) and Managing Diversity (business focus). Both tutorials include men and women which is recognition of the importance of the subject for all business people - men and women alike - in order to build better, more sustainable businesses.