Business schools ‘must challenge leader stereotypes’

Women in Leadership conference host says schools must ‘deconstruct’ curricula to combat gender bias

February 4, 2016
Franziska Brantner disguised as man, European Parliament, Strasbourg
Source: Corbis
Men at work: one scholar said that leaders are described in the ‘male paradigm’

A professor who is launching a new centre on women's role in the workplace has challenged business schools to ditch the stereotype of the white, male, corporate leader from their teaching of leadership.

Dianne Bevelander, professor of management education with a focus on women in management at Erasmus University's Rotterdam School of Management, said that “new leadership no longer looks like a white man rescuing companies”.

“It is far more diverse and includes women, people of colour, and people with different sexual orientations,” she said.

In an interview with Times Higher Education ahead of the Women in Leadership conference at Erasmus on 5 February – where Professor Bevelander will officially launch the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations – she said that she wanted to “make some noise” so that “people start looking at these issues in business schools”.

She said that furthering diverse leadership models in the corporate world was something that business schools can and should be helping with, but would be achieved only if staff stopped reinforcing the notion that powerful and charismatic male leaders are the solution for ailing companies.

“We have to look at how we teach leadership within the curriculum,” she said. “If, in the leadership courses, business schools are only talking about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, [and] not talking about Sheryl Sandberg or Christine Lagarde or Angela Merkel, we’re just reinforcing the male leadership stereotype again.

“Often the cases we use within [a] class, when we’re talking about leadership, [are] about men mainly. And then students see mainly men teaching in the classroom. Most of the books they see have been written by men. Most of the leadership is still very male. Most of the guest lecturers are male.

“So I would say, subliminally, [that] they are starting to see leadership as a male paradigm. It’s being reinforced. And what I’m saying is that we can change.”

Emotional v assertive

Professor Bevelander said that gender bias was also an issue for women.

“If I ask you to describe a woman, you’d say communicative, relationship-oriented, emotional, all these types of nice words,” she said. “If I say describe men: goal-oriented, strong, to the point, assertive. And then if I ask you to describe leaders, you would describe leaders in the male paradigm, the male adjectives.

“And then if women act like ‘leaders’, they’re not acting to type, and both men and women don’t like this. That’s gender bias. It’s not only for men to change, but women must also realise that they’re part of the change as well.”

She acknowledged that shifting attitudes would be a slow process and that “you and I are going to be long dead" before substantial change happened.

“I can raise these issues, but until we get enough traction, things aren’t going to change quickly,” she said. “I run women-only courses, which aren’t always liked by the males because they say I’m now discriminating, which I am, but it’s about helping women understand what’s going on without the men there.

“As [comedian and writer] Ricky Gervais said: ‘It’s better to create something that others criticise than to create nothing and criticise others.’ We have a lot of people who believe in the work we do and there are those that don’t. Those that don't are the people we have to engage and convince.”

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