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Professor Mushfiq Mobarak teaching last year.

MBA Students Confront Gender Disparities in the Workplace

A lecture in the State and Society course about gender bias in the labor market gave rise to a passionate student discussion about the obstacles to equity in the workplace.

By Karen Guzman

When Professor Mushfiq Mobarak began his lecture on gender disparities in the labor market on a Thursday afternoon in April, gold cohort MBA students in the classroom were ready to tackle the issue head-on.

“In our cohort, this conversation has been happening, in different ways, all year,” said Becca Constantine ’19. “It’s an issue that keeps coming up, and it brings a lot of emotions with it. We’re all going to deal with this. In class, we finally got to have the discussion in a really concentrated way, and reactions were strong.”

So strong that multiple students in the class, the core State and Society course for first-year MBA students, reached out to Mobarak afterward, seeking further guidance. State and Society focuses on issues at the intersection of business, government, and society and the role of the business community in addressing them.

 “A common question in their emails was, ‘What are the implications for us, and what are the implications for policy?’” said Mobarak, professor of economics. “It was important for us to have this conversation in a core class, so that the discussion happened in public in front of the entire class of male and female students. The tradeoffs between career and family often forced on women are obviously not easy for them. The research suggests that this is due to prevailing social norms about men as breadwinners, and those expectations make it hard for men as well.”

The discussion continued the following Sunday afternoon during a weekly follow-up meeting led by the teaching assistants for State and Society.

Poised to begin their summer internships, after rounds of recruiting that would shape their professional lives, the MBA students were confronting a long-standing, and insidious, workplace issue with no easy solution.

Gender disparity was particularly resonant this year, as issues of equity for women—in terms of pay and treatment—have been prominent on the cultural radar. “The level of engagement with this topic was much higher and much more passionate and energetic than pretty much anything else we’ve covered in class,” said Mobarak, who co-teaches State and Society with Ian Shapiro, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Henry R. Luce Director of the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.

 Because the topic can be emotionally charged, Mobarak kept his approach analytical, relying on career data drawn from research on cohorts of MBA students to guide the discussion. Among other things, the data showed that while salaries started out the same for men and women MBA graduates, motherhood imposes a “huge” earning penalty on women that men who become fathers do not suffer. “And this gap never narrows again,” Mobarak said.

Statistics that Mobarak shared included 2007 research showing that discrimination plays a role in the “motherhood penalty.” In a field experiment with identical résumés, hiring managers were more likely to call back nonmothers than mothers, while there was no difference in callbacks for fathers versus nonfathers, the study showed.

Such discrimination damages career trajectories. While women hold about 52% of all professional-level positions, they represent just 14.6% of executive officers, 8.1% of top earners, and 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs. In highly paid sectors, such as finance, technology, and law, the disparities are particularly pronounced.

Compounding the problem is research that Mobarak shared from a 2017 study showing that women behave differently than men during their MBA years. In a 2006 speed-dating experiment, researchers found that men are averse to female partners who are more professionally ambitious than they are, or who are more intelligent, better educated, or hold higher occupational status. This creates a tendency in women to downplay actions leading to their own professional success, for fear of negative consequences in the “dating market,” Mobarak said.

Claudia Sosa Lazo ’18 is head teaching assistant for State and Society. “Professor Mobarak used numerous studies to unpack common views around gender inequity in the workforce,” she said. “He started off by unpacking President Obama’s claim that women make 77 cents for every dollar made by a man, and then peeled away the layers to highlight the real complexity of the issue.”

That complexity wasn’t lost on students. “Male students are gradually becoming aware of the challenges that women face,” said Alex Kasavin ’19. “Part of it is realizing that women make tradeoffs that we aren’t forced to make, and as a result we have to understand both the systemic pressure they face and their individual responses in light of these choices.”

Classroom reactions were varied, Kasavin said. They included perspectives from women, students sharing their partners’ perspectives, and discussion about the systemic barriers that mean that women who choose to have children sacrifice earning potential. “We were fortunate to have someone in our cohort who worked at the center that produced a lot of the empirical studies, and she kept us grounded in the research,” Kasavin said.

He added that because our understanding of gender as a society is evolving, further research and work will be needed to provide equal opportunities for all gender identities.

Amy Zhu ’19 was one of the students who reached out to Mobarak with questions after class. “The topic is top-of-mind as we go through the recruiting process,” she said. “You can’t argue with the statistics. For me the biggest piece of this is building advocacy and awareness.”

Some of her classmates were surprised by the disparity in salaries that the data revealed for men and women as they progress through their careers, Zhu said. “I was glad that they’d become aware, but it also showed just how far we have to go in raising awareness and advocating for policy change.”

Constantine credits Yale SOM with encouraging students to confront the issue. “Our diverse cohort structure asks students to have this conversation,” she said. “It’s an inherently difficult conversation, but all companies are realizing it’s something we need to deal with now,” she said. “SOM gives students the language and skills around tough topics like this.”