In recent years, the push for diversity and inclusion has become increasingly prevalent in various sectors, including higher education. One aspect of this push is the importance of gender diversity in universities. According to one survey, 43.3% of U.S. professors are women, and another survey said 50.9% of university staff are women.

Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University is proud of its success in diversifying its leadership, faculty, and staff. Charla Griffy-Brown, director general and dean of Thunderbird, says gender diversity plays a critical role in higher education.

“At Thunderbird, we understand that diverse leadership is essential for addressing complex global challenges,” Griffy-Brown said. “By ensuring gender diversity at all levels, we can better serve our mission of creating global leaders equipped to drive sustainable and equitable prosperity worldwide.”

Lena Booth, deputy dean of Thunderbird Academic Enterprise and associate professor of finance, and Christine Pearson, professor of global leadership, examine why gender diversity is crucial in leadership, faculty, and staff roles at universities and what can be gained from it.

Overcoming gender barriers

Booth and Pearson both have stories of overcoming gender barriers in their careers. Booth said she was alone in a male-dominated finance industry.

“When I started my Ph.D. in finance more than 30 years ago, I was the only woman in the program,” she said. “After I graduated, I worked in a department as the only female — actually, in two higher education institutions. 

“But things have changed dramatically. In fact, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an accreditation body, says about 40% of the faculty in business schools are now female,” Booth said.

Pearson said she had received a gender-based raise, part of Thunderbird’s significant move toward gender equity in salaries.

“That was the first gender-based raise I have experienced in my career, across four major universities,” she said.

She said that the impact of pay increases on recipient performance can be short-lived, but that improvements in equity “can drive perceptions of fairness and enhance employee satisfaction for recipients and other employees.”

“Diversity is a central value at Thunderbird,” Pearson said. She cited prior gains in the number of female faculty and staff members as evidence of its emphasis. 

Booth agreed that diversity is an important goal at Thunderbird.

“We measure by how we include and not how we exclude,” she said. “So, inclusive leadership is really practiced here at ASU and at Thunderbird.”

This type of diversity is important for a few reasons:

1. Representation

Gender diversity ensures that the leadership, faculty, and staff at universities reflect the demographics of the student body and society as a whole. When individuals from diverse gender backgrounds are represented in decision-making positions, it sends a powerful message of inclusivity. Students, faculty, and staff alike feel valued and respected, knowing that their perspectives are considered in shaping the direction of the institution.

A lack of gender diversity in leadership can perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce existing power imbalances. By increasing representation, universities create a more equitable environment where everyone has an opportunity to contribute and thrive.

2. Innovation

Diversity drives innovation. When people from different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives come together, they bring a wealth of ideas and approaches to problem-solving. Gender-diverse teams in academia are more likely to challenge conventional thinking, leading to breakthroughs in research, teaching methods, and academic programs.

By fostering an environment where diverse voices are heard and valued, universities can push the boundaries of knowledge and make meaningful contributions to society. This innovation not only benefits the institution but also prepares students to tackle complex challenges in their future careers.

3. Equity

Gender diversity promotes equity by dismantling barriers and biases that may exist in hiring, promotion, and tenure processes. It ensures that individuals are recognized and rewarded based on their qualifications, skills, and contributions, rather than their gender.

Gender-diverse institutions such as Thunderbird are more likely to have policies and practices in place that support equal opportunities for all members of the community. This creates a fairer and more supportive environment where individuals can thrive academically and professionally, regardless of gender identity.

“Openness to diversity is an expectation to be nurtured and developed,” Pearson said. “It also expands the potential reach and impact to and from the fundamentals of research, teaching, and service.”  

4. Role modeling

Having diverse role models in leadership, faculty, and staff positions provides students with tangible examples of success across genders. Seeing individuals who share their gender succeeding in academia inspires students to pursue their own academic and professional goals with confidence.

Gender-diverse role models help break down stereotypes and biases, encouraging students to pursue fields of study and career paths that they may not have considered otherwise. This broadens students' horizons and creates a more inclusive academic culture.

“Having a very gender-diverse learning environment gives students a chance to see what they can achieve,” Booth said.

5. Global perspective

In an increasingly interconnected world, diversity is essential for preparing students to thrive in diverse and multicultural environments. With its emphasis on global business leadership, Thunderbird provides exposure to diverse perspectives and experiences in higher education. This helps students develop the skills and cultural competence needed to succeed in a globalized society.

Gender-diverse academic environments promote cross-cultural understanding and collaboration, preparing students to engage with people from diverse backgrounds in their future careers and making them better global citizens.

What can be gained by gender diversity in the workplace?

There are many advantages to having a more gender-diverse faculty and staff, Booth and Pearson said. Among the gains are these:

1. Enhanced decision making

Gender-diverse leadership teams bring a broader range of perspectives and experiences to the table, leading to more informed and innovative decision-making. When individuals with different backgrounds collaborate, they are more likely to consider a wider range of options, identify blind spots, and reach better outcomes.

“Ideas are quite different between men and women,” Booth said. “If they collaborate, ideas can be discovered and students can be given different viewpoints and perspectives,” which also challenges stereotypes and encourages critical thinking.

Universities with gender-diverse leadership, such as Thunderbird, are better equipped to address complex challenges, adapt to changing environments, and make decisions that reflect the needs and interests of all stakeholders.

2. Improved organizational culture

A culture that values and promotes gender diversity fosters greater employee satisfaction, engagement, and retention. When individuals feel included, respected, and supported in their workplace, they are more motivated to perform at their best and contribute positively to the organization's mission.

“When employee satisfaction rises,” Pearson said, “that tends to improve the organization’s ability to attract the best candidates and to enhance other key elements like employee retention.”

Universities with inclusive organizational cultures are also able to create a sense of belonging among faculty and staff, as well as promote collaboration and innovation across departments and disciplines.

3. Positive reputation

Universities that prioritize gender diversity are viewed more favorably by students, faculty, prospective employees, and the broader community. A reputation for inclusivity and diversity enhances the institution's brand and distinguishes it as a leader in promoting equity and social responsibility.

A positive reputation for gender diversity can attract a more diverse pool of applicants for faculty, staff, and student positions, enhancing the institution's intellectual and cultural richness.

4. Increased creativity and innovation

Gender-diverse teams are more likely to be more creative and come up with innovative solutions to complex problems. By bringing together individuals with different perspectives, backgrounds, and approaches, universities can produce a culture of creativity and experimentation.

“At the core, diversity of any kind helps open minds,” Pearson said. “Accepting, enhancing, and welcoming difference fuels collaboration, innovation, and creativity, which are essential ingredients for excellence in higher education.”

Universities that embrace gender diversity are better positioned to push the boundaries of knowledge, drive technological advancements, and make groundbreaking discoveries that benefit society as a whole.

5. Better student outcomes

Research has shown that students learn better and achieve higher academic success in environments that are diverse and inclusive. Exposure to diverse perspectives, experiences, and role models helps students develop critical thinking skills, empathy, and cultural competence.

Universities with gender-diverse faculty and staff are better able to meet the diverse needs of their student population, resulting in higher retention rates, improved graduation rates, and greater overall student satisfaction.

The next steps in innovation

Griffy-Brown noted that institutions with higher gender diversity among faculty and leadership are better at fostering inclusive environments, which enhance student learning outcomes and academic performance.

“Gender diversity contributes to a richer academic dialogue and a broader perspective on research and policy development,” she said. 

This is not just a matter of representation; it's essential for inspiring innovation, equity, and a positive learning environment. 

“I believe that ASU's effort toward gender diversity also helps achieve innovation,” Booth said. “I feel that is one of the reasons that we have been rated number one in innovation by U.S. News & World Report for nine years in a row now.”

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