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‘To survive and thrive’ in a male-dominated field: Female faculty, administrators advocate for more women in business

While the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business reported an increase in women working in business schools, female faculty within the UW System said there could always be more.

Image By: Maggie Liu

A female business student starting the semester must prepare herself for rigorous coursework, difficult exams and a competitive internship search. 

Along with each of these struggles, she only has a one-in-five chance that her professor will be able to relate to the potential challenges she could face as a woman in the business field, according to an Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business Salary Survey

In the United States in 2015-’16, only 20.5 percent of full-time business school professors were women, the lowest percentage of female faculty by rank. Female instructors made up the highest portion of women working in business schools at 40.1 percent, the AACSB survey said. 

Currently, UW-Madison’s School of Business’ eight academic departments are 26 percent women in teaching positions  — such as professor, assistant or associate professor, senior lecturer, lecturer, faculty associate and teaching emeritus — according to faculty directories. 

This lack of balance between male and female faculty has some female professors in UW System business schools wanting more women in their departments. 

“[My perspective is] not unusual in the sense that all women need colleagues that can identify with them and mentor them,” UW-Madison accounting & information systems professor Karla Johnstone-Zehms said. “I didn't view many of my male colleagues as available mentors … I very purposefully sought female faculty members in my discipline from other universities to help mentor me.”

Women working in comparatively equal environments also have dealt with gender imbalance, according to UW-La Crosse College of Business Administration Dean Laura Milner. She cited UW-La Crosse’s business school’s overall faculty as 43 percent women, but even so, she is no stranger to working in a field run by men. 

“Even if there were more women, the guy was at the top, or guys were at the top,” Milner said. “Mostly for me, for all my career, it has been male-dominated, as in numbers and also positions.” 

Milner added that gender balance is a two-way street, and neither an overwhelming majority of men nor an overwhelming majority of women — such as in the field of nursing — is a beneficial work environment.

“A token woman will be picked off easy — or the token male, too,” Milner said. “It's not fun for anybody to be in a super-minority position.”

However, numbers for female academics in business have improved over the course of a decade. The AACSB surveys reported the overall percentage of full-time female faculty in business schools is rising slowly but steadily, from 26.9 percent in 2006-’07 to 31.2 percent in 2015-’16. 

At UW-Milwaukee, faculty are seeing the results of these positive trends. Assistant professor of accounting Colleen Boland said UW-Milwaukee’s Lubar School of Business is doing well to equalize the number of men and women faculty in the accounting department at around 40 percent.

More business schools have also been hiring women into the highest positions of leadership, according to data Milner obtained from Women Administrators in Management Education. Twenty-five percent of accredited schools have female business deans, which is a sharp increase compared to the six female deans in that position 20 years ago, Milner said. 

Despite this increase, Milner said there still isn’t enough women in leadership positions. Different perceptions of male versus female leaders come into play and create additional obstacles for women seeking trust and respect in their positions of power, she said.

“Usually for males, [leadership] is naturally accorded. Women have to earn it,” Milner said. “Women rely more on consensus, transparency versus, say, an innate trust where we just know he'll do the right thing. We have to prove it's going to be the right thing.”

Within the 13 campuses of the UW System, only three business schools have female deans, along with UW-Superior, which has a female director sharing the highest position within the business school with a male director, according to a spokesperson at the UW-Superior information center.

According to Milner, there is no reason why universities shouldn’t select women to run business schools. 

“I don't think there's anything genetically inherent in either males or females that makes them better leaders than others,” Milner said. “I think everybody comes up with their strategies and their tactics based on the situation.”

The respect that goes hand-in-hand with a leadership role, however, may be harder to come by for some women working in business schools. Johnstone-Zehms said she felt her gender has affected the way she has been treated by coworkers in certain instances, though these situations have improved throughout her career. She cited times when male colleagues talked over her at meetings and how she hasn’t been assigned to top committees as often as her male counterparts.

For Boland, she said she has never had issues with her colleagues, but her students sometimes don’t show her the same respect as they do male professors.

“Students appear a little bit more skeptical with the female faculty than they do with the males,” Boland said. “As far as my colleagues, I feel very respected and promoted and encouraged and supported.”

While female faculty continue to build their space in business schools, other women have had only positive experiences working within the UW System’s business schools. 

Laurie Brachman, a senior lecturer in UW-Madison’s marketing department, said her past experiences working in other, more traditionally masculine environments — such as the beer industry — has made her appreciate the equality she is afforded at the School of Business.

“I think work is work here, and if you do a good job, you are recognized and rewarded,” Brachman said. “Academia is a different environment, but also again, there is so much respect for not only the research but teaching here that I think women are on completely equal footing.”

Driving part of the conversation around gender equality in academia is the question of how to attract more female faculty to universities, according to UW-Madison finance faculty associate Elizabeth Hill. 

“You can't try to improve methods just by operating via the status quo. You have to go out and find [female faculty],” Hill said. “You have to improve this level of direct contact.”

Both Johnstone-Zehms and Milner mentioned the concept of “critical mass,” or the idea that programs need to reach a minimum number of female staff members before they will be able to hire additional women more easily. 

“I think what it is is having an increasing number of women faculty so that new female recruits don't feel like it's going to be an insurmountable obstacle,” Johnstone-Zehms said. 

She also noted that the “catch-22” in the situation is business schools need to first obtain this critical mass of female faculty, and that can prove to be difficult when women have to be pioneers in their places of work.

Taking this into account, Johnstone-Zehms said this means she looks for “very, very strong women” when hiring in her department, and these women can’t be afraid of potential adversity.

“I myself have thought very carefully about who it is that we are hiring and whether they are strong enough emotionally, psychologically, interpersonally to fight the fight that they're going to have to fight in the school of business,” Johnstone-Zehms said. “In other words, the school of business is not a place for the faint of heart. You're going to have to be very strong to survive and thrive.”

In addition to these challenges, women pursuing any career in business, not just academia, will face issues such as balancing family and career, an overwhelmingly male workforce and gender stereotypes, according to Milner. 

“It's very hard for women to make it anywhere,” Milner said. “It's a matter of still who controls the standard, and I think males still control the standard of work.”

Brachman spoke about advising some of her female students about the idea of learning to market themselves and what she called “the fatal ‘I’m sorry,’” an unnecessary apology women in the workplace use too often that casts them in a negative light.

“I think women tend to have a higher level of self-criticism than men do, and they don't feel comfortable talking about their achievements, and even for things like asking for raises or asking for the promotion,” Brachman said. “I think that that's something that can be taken advantage of and reinforced in the workplace.”

However, Johnstone-Zehms, Milner, Boland and Brachman each mentioned improvement in the environment for women over the course of their careers, regardless of their personal experiences. 

Milner said she believes trends of increased gender equality will keep progressing. 

“I'm optimistic; I'm very optimistic,” Milner said. “I think the next generation is going to change some expectations about work behavior.”

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