Gender Bias in Management: An Interview with Dr. Ethne Swartz

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On May 18, 2017, The School of Business and Technology, in collaboration with the President’s Committee on Inclusion (PCI), welcomed Dr. Ethne Swartz to Excelsior College.  Dr. Swartz gave a colloquium entitled: “Making it through the labyrinth:  Gender bias in management.”  Dr. Michele Paludi, Assistant Dean of Graduate Programs and Faculty Program Director for Human Resources and Leadership, recently met with Dr. Swartz to learn more about her scholarship.


Paludi: Please share with me the reason you embarked on your scholarship on women and management.

Swartz: The inspiration for my scholarship on women and management emerged from research that I was conducting on how women negotiate term sheets for risk capital investment in companies they own or manage.  As I explored the data for our sample, a number of themes emerged.  Those women who were successful were the ones who demonstrated a degree of pragmatism in terms of who participated on their negotiation team, including males on the team when it was clear they themselves lacked some of the competencies to negotiate a successful deal. Additionally, all of the women who were successful were well educated in finance, marketing, or the sciences.  This link between levels of education in specific areas led me to explore the economics literature on human capital development.  Human capital theory originated from economist Gary Becker’s concern that there was no unifying theory of investment in human capital and its effects on earnings, turnover and unemployment (Becker, 1974).  Human capital includes the “…knowledge, information, ideas, skills and health of individuals”  and it seemed to be a useful framework to explain the differences that I was observing in the women entrepreneurs who were successful compared to those who were less successful.

In turn, delving into this literature led naturally to the field of labor economics to explain differences in human capital development on an individual basis AND a societal level.  Individuals choose whether to pursue higher education or accumulate work experience and skills.  In 2017 in the U.S. there are few legal obstacles to women attending college and pursuing a career in any field that requires professional credentials such as medical school, law school, business school or engineering school.  This is not universally the case and has not always been the case in the U.S.  As recently as the 1960s women could not attend the best colleges and even Ruth Bader Ginsberg earned less than male colleagues in her first academic role because of assumptions made about her being married and enjoying greater wealth because of her husband’s income!  Given the legal and social obstacles that women faced in the past, even if they wanted to develop their knowledge, skills and capabilities, society often prevented that!  Arguing that women lack specific capabilities because they chose not to embark on skills development is therefore not a sufficient basis for understanding why some women in my sample had assembled the ingredients to be successful while others lacked them.  Explaining human capital development from a societal and organizational vantage point was critical.  The empirical work of Claudia Goldin at Harvard University enabled me to understand U.S. labor market inefficiencies and the wage gap – these help us uncover mechanisms at play that ultimately affect all women but especially those who wish to take leadership roles in management or politics.


Paludi: How do you provide a historical review to millennial students so they appreciate the women who went before them?

Swartz:  It is important that we educate all our students about the importance of human capital development so that they can make informed choices about their careers.  Millennials have a different vantage point because of their life experiences and my approach is to engage in a discussion about the career paths of the important women in their lives – mothers, aunts, grandmothers, or friends.  Interviewing these individuals can be a powerful way for students to learn about how stunted the careers of these women have been; if they have been successful in attaining their desired career in management or as an entrepreneur, we explored how the women overcame the obstacles they faced.  Some students will organically learn about the “glass ceiling” era while others will understand that this metaphor does not fully capture the reality today.  Many women did get to the top of organizations and we have to understand how they were able to do so – what strategies did they use?  A few years ago, I used this exercise when I was teaching at a German university and a student discovered that in his family-owned company, his great-grandmother and grandmother were the individuals who took over leadership of the company during WWI and subsequently in WWII.  Once the men returned from the war and took over leadership of the company, the women resumed their roles as family caretakers.  Oral histories such as these can powerfully elucidate the struggles of women leaders and enable students to make the connections with academic concepts.

My experience is that millennials are very curious and socially conscious and the demographic category spans a very wide group of people who learn in different ways.  Some millennials would best learn through video, others through podcasts, video essays, etc.  We should tell stories about the contributions others have made.  Story telling can be very compelling today because of the combination of spoken word, video and visual formats available to us.  Using these formats can show how women leaders bring different perspectives and add value because their experiences lead them to value different solutions to everyday problems.  Where would we be today without the vision and courage of women such as Anita Roddick (founder of Bodyshop), Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) and Angela Merkel (the Chancellor of Germany)?  Our stories have to be relatable, so that millennials understand why women leaders and managers have a great deal of value to add to companies.  One millennial I interviewed recently indicated that she did not understand why economics was so important for her to study until she listened to the podcast, Freakonomics!  I guess we need a similar podcast that speaks to ordinary people in ways that help them to understand the relevance to their lives today.


Paludi: Are you conducting additional research on women and management/leadership?

Swartz:  Yes, I am.  This summer I will continue to do research on women and management by delving deeper into labor market economics and human capital theory.  In addition to understanding human capital development, it is also clear that social networks unlock success for individuals as they climb the organizational hierarchy.  Again, there is literature that shows how women have lacked been excluded from certain networks due to gender but also due to social class.  This will be my next area of research and I would like to tie this to human capital theory to enable me to test hypotheses.


Paludi:  What recommendations do you have for organizations on ways to empower women?

Swartz:  It is imperative that we educate individuals about the value that comes from empowering women.  Studies have demonstrated that having more women in leadership roles and on company boards are associated with better financial performance.  My recommendation would be to look to organizations such as and the United Nations (UN). maintains data and runs training courses on diversity and on women’s empowerment.  The UN has established a set a guidelines on women’s empowerment (  The very first principle of top management support for women’s empowerment is likely the most critical.  Women leaders should play their part by being highly engaged and participating actively when opportunities for advancement present themselves.



Opinions expressed are solely those of the author(s) and do not represent the views or opinions of my employer.