Six ways to embed an inclusive feminist pedagogy into business education

To challenge the status quo and entrenched biases of business education, we need to implement a feminist pedagogy. Nora Grasselli offers six ways to do so

Nora Grasselli's avatar
ESMT Berlin
14 May 2024
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image credit: iStock/SeventyFour.

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In the journey towards more equitable organisations in our rapidly evolving business landscape, the role of education is pivotal. The need for inclusive and transformative teaching methodologies has never been greater. 

The ultimate goal is to pave the way for a more just business world and to empower future leaders to champion gender equality within their spheres of influence – but this is not an easy task. One important way to dismantle the traditional hierarchies and gender biases that pervade business education is to implement a feminist pedagogy. 

Feminist pedagogy is an approach to teaching that emphasises equality, collaboration and the critical examination of power dynamics within the classroom and society at large. It offers a framework for challenging the status quo and nurturing a generation of leaders, who are attuned to the nuances of gender equity and inclusivity. 

By integrating feminist pedagogy into business education, we not only enrich the learning experience but also equip future leaders with the empathy and insight needed to drive meaningful change in their organisations and communities. But how can we implement it in practice?

Use female protagonists in case selection

Choosing and teaching cases that feature female protagonists is a deliberate strategy to underscore the importance of representation. During case discussions, prompt participants to consider the impact of the protagonist’s gender on how the situation develops. This will encourage them to reflect on and discuss the nuanced ways gender may influence business scenarios and leadership challenges.

Encourage gender-diverse perspectives in discussions

Proactively ensure that female and underrepresented voices are heard early in class discussions. This might involve approaching selected participants before class starts and encouraging them to share their perspectives. If women are initially hesitant to speak, gently cold call on them and then express appreciation for their contributions. Make sure the first student voice heard in the classroom is the voice of a woman. This approach not only diversifies the discussion, but also builds confidence among underrepresented participants, helping them to share their insights.

Observe and comment on gender dynamics

Actively observe gender dynamics within the classroom, especially during experiential learning exercises or case discussions. Highlight instances of inclusion – or lack thereof, how leadership roles are assumed by traditionally dominant groups and how ideas from minority voices are treated. Make observations such as, “It is interesting to see that so far, only male participants commented on the case of [name the female case protagonist]. I am wondering how the women in the room perceive her situation.” This practice raises awareness about gender dynamics and encourages a more inclusive dialogue. 

Think about group composition

When creating groups, consider the composition in terms of gender diversity. While the instinct may be to evenly distribute women across groups, sometimes creating a women-only group or a group with a majority of women can foster new dynamics and insights. 

Acknowledge women’s contributions

After encouraging participation from women and underrepresented voices, follow up with positive reinforcement. This could be through expressing appreciation in class or providing personal thanks during breaks for their contributions. Such gestures of acknowledgement are crucial for reinforcing the value of diverse perspectives and encouraging continued engagement.

Reflect on your class dynamics

Share your observations about gender dynamics and inclusion with the class, prompting reflection on how these dynamics play out and their implications for leadership and collaboration. This practice not only makes participants more aware of their behaviours and biases, but also fosters a learning environment where continuous improvement towards inclusivity is a shared goal.

While this seems easy to implement on paper, it does come with plenty of challenges that will need overcoming if we are to succeed. For instance, there’s a risk that women may feel singled out or put on the spot, potentially leading to discomfort or reluctance to participate. But there are a number of ways we can overcome this – such as explaining the rationale for your inclusive teaching before the class has begun, through simply taking a student aside before the class begins or making an appreciative comment (if true) about the diversity present in the room. 

Other techniques could be making it clear that participation is totally voluntary, and offering support and resources to participants who may feel hesitant, ensuring they are confident and prepared. Business schools should also use anonymous feedback surveys to gauge comfort levels and gather suggestions for improving inclusivity, without singling people out.

Another challenge could be that men might feel that the emphasis on feminist principles and the effort to elevate female voices implies a bias against them or an assumption of their complicity in gender inequality.

Make it clear to your students that the goal of feminist pedagogy is not to diminish men’s experiences but to broaden the dialogue to include perspectives that have historically been marginalised. Emphasise that this approach benefits all participants by fostering a richer, more comprehensive understanding of leadership and business challenges.

Another approach to this challenge could be establishing clear guidelines of discussion that promote respect and empathy for all viewpoints, as well as using role-reversal exercises where men are invited to consider situations from the female perspective in order to foster empathy and understanding.

One final challenge that may occur is participants questioning the relevance of gender to some of the key topics studied. To overcome this, universities must communicate that the role of business education extends beyond just imparting subject-specific knowledge. 

Higher education institutions should also present research and case studies that highlight the existence of negative biases and gender inequality in organisations, emphasising how these systemic issues can hinder organisational success and leadership effectiveness. 

Tackle this challenge by bringing in guest speakers and teaching faculty who can represent diversity or share insights on integrating gender analysis into professional practice. This way, you can offer concrete examples of how these principles are inherently linked to the core topics of business education and can lead to organisational improvement.

Universities should embrace the opportunity to transform their classrooms into platforms for advocacy, where every lesson is a step towards a more just and inclusive business world. Together, we can contribute to the transformative change needed in our organisations and society.

Nora Grasselli is an expert in experiential learning and action learning in executive education and a lecturer in leadership at ESMT Berlin.

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