Giving MBA Students Tools for Equality, Effectiveness

Victoria Brescoll, Yale School of Management

Victoria Brescoll, Yale School of Management

Ordinary mortals do not typically have their work featured in front of millions of viewers on John Oliver’s comedic, incisive, and often profane “Last Week Tonight” HBO show. Yale School of Management professor Victoria Brescoll is no ordinary mortal.

In August, Oliver used a study of Brescoll’s as fodder to take aim at gender inequality in the workforce. Brescoll, with four Yale colleagues, had sent to U.S. university scientists application materials from a fictional undergraduate student seeking a lab-manager job. The materials were identical, except some were from an applicant named “John” and some from “Jennifer.” The researchers discovered that the scientists – female as well as male – rated job applications from a John more highly than from a Jennifer, would be more likely to hire John than Jennifer, and would pay him $4,000 more.

“So,” Oliver told his viewers, “it seems we either address the root of this problem and fight entrenched sexism in our society, or – all women simply change their names to John. It’ll be confusing for a while but you’ll have $4,000 extra a year just to take the edge off the confusion.”


Brescoll says she’s been interested in gender issues since “about 8th grade.” Her work as a social scientist lets her apply data analysis to the issues she’s concerned with as a feminist and researcher into business practices. “On the surface,” she says of the U.S. working environment, “everything seems kind of fair, but when you look at the data, it’s not. It’s sort of hard to see biases or discrimination on an individual basis. You look around you and you don’t see it.”

Unfairness is one issue. Ineffectiveness is another. Gender discrimination “is hurting business,” Brescoll says. “Maybe if we wanted organizations to function better we’d be making full use of all the talent,” she says.

Because her students will go on to occupy powerful positions, she puts a strong emphasis on providing education that will give them tools to achieve workplace equality, such as employee-training techniques for reducing biases, and audits of hiring practices and patterns, Brescoll says.

Companies’ self-examination can uncover the reasons behind gender imbalances, she says, such as at pre-merger Deloitte & Touche, which had been making huge investments in training female employees, then watching them disappear. Company officials assumed there was a “hole in the pipeline” caused by women leaving work to have children. Study of the problem revealed women didn’t feel comfortable in the working environment, and had scheduling problems, so were jumping ship to competitors. Deloitte and Touche conducted “affinity groups” to address the first issue, and mandated all-employee remote work requirements to give women days to work from home. “It was really a kind of bold thing to do,” Brescoll says. “The clients loved it. They liked getting a break from having the consultant in their face all the time.”


When teaching, Brescoll – who has a BA, two master’s degrees, and a PhD in psychology – hits her “important takeaways,” but has learned to let class sessions play out according to student interests and needs, she says. “In recent years I’ve gotten much better or seen more of the importance of my own reflective listening when students are speaking . . . actually kind of letting the class go where the students are taking it,” she says. “It’s made the classes a lot better. It’s a fine line. You do have to cover certain materials, but at the same time I’ve had to, as I’m teaching, actively hear what they’re saying and respond to that.

“I’ve learned to really kind of go with the flow, and really sort of listen to them in class so I can tailor what I’m doing to what they need.”

Students can maximize the benefits of class discussions by paying close attention – even when they’re intent on contributing and “participation points may be on the line,” she says. “Students who are sitting there, hand up . . . it can be hard for them to hear what the other students are saying.”


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