Forbes last year declared that the MBA degree was officially in crisis, with business schools, including the highest-ranked ones, reporting significant and ongoing declines in the percentage of applications to their MBA programs, sometimes double-digit declines. Later the same year the media reported a silver lining to the grim statistics: The number of women enrolled in MBA programs is now higher than ever before. In 2011, women made up only 32 percent of students at top business schools; in 2019 they made up 39 percent.
I am not here to dismiss these statistics, and, certainly, progress is progress. But lest we get overly self-congratulatory, I offer a sobering reminder that significant gaps of inequality remain.
Let’s begin with the persisting pay gap. You may have heard that women, in general, earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, but there are problems with this widely cited figure. First, it doesn’t account for the experience of women of color for whom the pay gap is even larger. The other problem with the 80-cents-for-every-dollar statistic is it only compares how much men and women are paid in one year. When you take into account numerous years it’s actually worse. The 80 cents figure doesn’t take into account that women are more likely to leave work to take care of family or children. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research compared men and women’s earnings over a 15-year period and found that women on average actually made only 49 cents for every dollar that men made.
What’s also discouraging is that the pay gap widens, not narrows, with higher levels of education. No matter what their highest degree is, women need one additional degree higher than men to earn the same salary. And women with MBAs actually face the widest uncontrolled pay gaps among women of all education levels. So why would women even bother getting MBAs? Because they still earn more with those MBAs than they would without — 63 percent or more. It’s just less than the 76 percent increase that men with MBAs earn.
Then there is the leadership gap. Despite earning more than 57 percent of all undergraduate degrees and 59 percent of all master’s degrees, women constitute only 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 4.89 percent of S&P 500 CEOs, 7 percent of top executives in the Fortune 100 companies and a mere 10 percent of top management positions in S&P 1500 companies.
None of this is to even touch upon the cultural disparities that remain in other arenas, such as the home, where research has shown that even breadwinning women still do the majority of housework, creating a double whammy of inequality.
Let’s put aside, for the moment, ethical arguments for promoting wage equality and diversity in leadership. There’s plenty of research showing it is simply better for companies’ financial performance and for the economy as a whole. For example, companies for whom at least 30 percent of the leaders are women can expect a 15 percent boost to profitability on average versus similar companies with no female leaders. There’s also a link between companies with more women in leadership and stronger share price performance. And equal pay would add an extra $512.6 billion to the economy.
This only grazes the surface of the data that’s out there. With so much evidence pointing to the win-win benefits of closing the wage gap and promoting more women to leadership positions, why are we still lagging behind? At the current rate, it will take 257 years to reach pay equality between men and women. Progress isn’t just slow; it’s stalled.
One of the causes of the ongoing wage and leadership inequality is gender bias, despite the fact that some of the very people who help perpetuate this problem don’t believe in it. The thing about bias is that it’s often unconscious. We call this implicit bias, and a Harvard online research study of 200,000 participants found that 76 percent of them had implicit biases about gender. MBAs alone will not fix the pay and leadership gaps caused by such biases until there is cultural change.
Many, both men and women, are sincere in wanting to help their organizations implement this kind of cultural change but may not know how. Only 51 percent of managers say they know things they can do to help improve gender diversity at work. Fortunately, we can address implicit biases in ways that truly work, leading to improvements in both attitudes and behaviors. For maximum efficacy, diversity training should:
--Be substantial in length. The longer the training, the better the results.
--Teach concrete skills as well as awareness.
--Be integrated as part of a broader diversity initiative (e.g. revise hiring practices, provide a mentorship program, create diverse leadership pipelines, allow for flex time and parental leaves).
--Be mandatory. Employees like having a choice, but the research is clear in that mandatory training leads to better results, potentially because voluntary training may not attract those who most need it.
There are also things we can do at home and in the classroom. In addition to checking their own biases, parents should talk early and often with their children about gender, racial and class biases. Research at Harvard has shown that this works, and their published report offers specific discussion questions and activities that parents and teachers can do with children to start the conversation.
I am encouraged that more women are enrolling in MBA programs. It’s a step in the right direction. Bias and discrimination notwithstanding, the more women we have trained the more likely they are to rise into positions of leadership. So, there is hope and plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future. But there is still a lot of work to do. Let’s get to work.
Leilani Carver-Madalon is an assistant professor in the Master's in Strategic Communication and Leadership Online Program at Maryville University.