Columbia Business School: Why female students receive poorer grades

Female MBA students are receiving poorer grades than males in some MBA courses, reports Columbia Business School. New studies showconsistently for several recent student cohorts - that the gender performance gap in MBA students exists primarily in technically - oriented classes like accounting and finance, but not in socially-oriented classes like leadership and marketing.

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This prompted the U.S. American school to look into the reason behind this emerging pattern. Current empirical studies into this performance gap between male and female MBA students now detected two reasons: the background of students and their behaviour in MBA classrooms.

One reason was that female students are not speaking up in classroom discussions, according to Columbia Business School. Female MBAs show less public assertiveness, especially in technically-oriented classes such as finance, writes the school. However, active learning – such as case studies and class discussions – is considered essential for mastering the material in an MBA programme according to the business school.

“In this context, assertiveness means asking questions of peers and professors that help elucidate class material – plain and simple,” says author Aaron Wallen, Executive Director of the Management Division at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, and a former Lecturer at Columbia Business School. “Our research shows that female students far too often hold back and hesitate to ask the kinds of questions that would help them better master technical concepts and procedures, perhaps because it is inconsistent with the established gender norms linking men with technical ability. This has a profound effect on their overall achievement in MBA classes.”

Another source of the performance gap in technical-oriented classes is students’ backgrounds. Interests were assessed from entering students’ admissions applications as well as their responses to career counseling inventories. Not unexpectedly, given that psychological studies find consistent gender differences in interests from childhood onward, results revealed that more female students fit the “poet” interest profile and more men the “quant” profile according to Columbia Business School.

The authors offered recommendations for how this performance gap could be reduced or solved. Amongst their suggestions were:

  • Sponsor programmes that introduce technically-oriented female undergraduates to top MBA programmes.
  • Conduct specific outreach to students in existing STEM programmes who may not have considered an MBA degree.
  • Reduce required prior work experience so that students can enrol at a younger age.

The research, “Understanding the MBA Gender Gap: Women respond to Gender Norms by Reducing Public Assertiveness but Not Private Effort”, was conducted by the Leadership Lab at Columbia Business School, an institute that looks for research-based innovations in leadership development. 

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Barbara Barkhausen