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Gender inequality is often left unacknowledged in business management classrooms across the world.

And that is not going to cut it.

Enter Patricia Flynn, Trustee Professor of Economics and Management at Bentley University. She is doing something about it.

Even if many of the young people of today do not — yet — perceive the problem.

“It’s the ‘elephant in the room,’” says Flynn, who served 10 years as dean of the Graduate School of Business.

“Many people don’t think of gender as an issue anymore,” she says. “‘Oh yeah, been there, done that, it’s all OK.’ But that’s not so.” Consider the facts: 

  • Women still account for less than one in five deanships, less than one in three of the full-time faculty, and less than one in four of the tenured faculty in U.S. business schools.
  • Females earned 43 percent of the bachelor’s degrees conferred by U.S. business schools in 2012-13, but the number and percentage of women doing so has fallen in recent years. In contrast, women account for an increasing majority of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the U.S.
  • Females earned 36 percent of the MBA degrees granted in the U.S. in 2012-13, but that number, too, is on the decline. More than 3,500 fewer women got an MBA in 2012-13 than in 2009-10.

Moreover, much of the business school curriculum lacks cases studies and other materials on female managers and leaders. “There is a dearth of viable female role models for male as well as female students throughout their business education,” says Flynn.

A few years ago, Flynn, a highly accomplished woman known for taking on new challenges, agreed to oversee a major research project under the auspices of the United Nations. In 2011, Flynn joined with academics from Canada and England, one in a trio of co-chairs, to kick off an intensive Working Group on Gender Equality, a part of PRME (Principles for Responsible Management Education), an initiative launched by the UN Global Compact and UN Women. More than 500 business schools in 80 countries have signed on as signatories of PRME agreeing to support and advance changes in management education for responsible leadership in the future.

Since then, Flynn’s Working Group has developed an interdisciplinary network of academics across the globe, seeking to better integrate gender issues into business school curricula and research. The Working Group’s first project was creation of a Global Repository of resources to help make this happen. Developed by faculty in six countries, the Repository includes course syllabi, case studies, readings and other materials in 15 disciplines, including finance, accounting, marketing, corporate governance and corporate social responsibility. Flynn was an active participant in the official launch of the Repository at the 2012 PRME Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

And there is more. Flynn and her co-chairs are now editing two books in a PRME series: Integrating Gender Equality into Management Education, and Overcoming Challenges to Gender Equality in the Workplace. The first book highlights the challenges involved in integrating gender issues into business schools, and then provides case studies, best practices and recommendations to bring about change. The second book focuses on lessons learned from success stories as well as failed efforts across a range of industries and cultures in bringing gender equality to the world of work.

Business schools have been under the microscope in recent years, criticized for a lack of leadership in tackling key issues in the workplace and in society. The fact that several of the culprits in the well-publicized corporate scandals over the past decade hold of MBA degrees has not helped matters. Questions have been raised as to whether business schools are part of the problem, rather than the solution, to a better society.

In response, numerous books have been published asking business schools to challenge their traditions and assumptions, and take the lead in anticipating and facilitating change.

“Unfortunately, most of these make no reference to gender,” Flynn notes. “The word doesn’t appear in the index. When ‘diversity’ is raised, it is often in the context of international students and faculty.”

Flynn is a friendly woman with a great sense of humor. She can tell a charming story about getting a hole-in-one against all odds. Or tales about dashing from one far-flung country to the next. Or here’s the best — the time her son, then age seven, brought her to his classroom “show-and-tell” after all the media attention Flynn got for being among the first female business school deans. He wasn’t sure what a dean was, but that made his mom an object of curiosity.

Flynn wants female students — and women in general — to aim high, seriously consider all options, and have a fair shot of getting there. She wants to see more female students enrolling in business schools at the undergraduate and graduate levels. And she wants to see more female role models in business schools as tenured faculty and deans. “There are a lot of missed opportunities passing us by if talented women don’t see the value of a career in business,” she says. “It’s time to acknowledge and discuss the ‘elephant in the room’ — and the sooner the better.”