Boston University Questrom School of Business Dean Susan Fournier: “Here Are 5 Things We Need To Do To Close The Gender Wage Gap”

Here is what’s really interesting. Wag gaps are most significant in high skilled occupations, where we control, if you will, for the differences in occupation choices between men and women. This implicates something deeper is going on.

As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Fournier. Susan is the Allen Questrom Professor and Dean at Boston University Questrom School of Business. She joined the faculty at Questrom in 2005 as an Associate Professor of Marketing and Dean’s Research Fellow. In the ensuing years, she advanced through the faculty ranks and was named Questrom Professor in Management in 2013. She has been an influential member of the community in her varied roles as an educator, researcher, and administrator.

Thank you so much for joining us Dean Fournier! Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I am now leading as Dean of the Questrom School of Business. I am the first academic dean in 40 years and the School’s first woman dean. The announcement of my appointment brought many media interviews, and everyone wanted to ask me about one thing: what’s it like to be the first woman dean of the business school? I was so taken aback. It never occurred to me that people would be interested in my demographic. Gender has never been a defining aspect of my identity, nor has it played a prominent role in my career as an academic, consultant, or professional. This is not to say that gender has not been an element: I was the only woman among 29 faculty in the Harvard Business School marketing department during my tenure there. Don’t get me wrong, I have mentors who are women and aspire to be a mentor for other women. But I look forward to the day when no one asks about me as a woman dean and, rather, simply asks about me as a Dean.

Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One story comes to mind as I think about when I started as dean of BU Questrom and oddly enough, it has to do with office space. For 14 years, I spent hours upon hours in my faculty office, working amongst my peers. When I was appointed dean, I didn’t want to leave my office. I thrive on collaboration and being in the middle the action, so the thought of going to a stodgy, oak-littered office for perception sake wasn’t something I was interested in. Frankly, I also loved my view of the Charles River in Boston. I loved seeing the sunset and having a clear view of our beautiful city. This was hard-won real estate: it took me 8 years to get that office.

My predecessors had two very different approaches. One, a very traditional, mahogany-laden executive suite and the other, a tiny fishbowl. I never thought of an office as a representation of a personal brand up until now. All I could think of at that time was giving up an office with a great view and no longer sitting among my department colleagues.

It took me a full year to move. The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that my reluctance about moving to a “dean’s office” was in part a reflection of my reluctance to leave my 26-year old faculty identify behind, plus a bit of uncertainty about my statement of self in the new dean role. Fast forward and I now have space that is emblematic of who I am and how I operate in my position — approachable, collaborative, creative, and accessible.

What’s funny about this story is that it took me going on vacation for all of this to take place. The team was hard at work putting together the new space, and while I was on vacation (still fighting the move frankly), they moved me in. My office is now in the center of the building, with a wide glass wall open to the entire floor, an en-suite conference room, and a standing desk. Lot’s goes on in here, and it is all visible to everyone. It’s a reflection of who we are — transparent and open — and who I aspire to be as dean: warm, creative, conducive to collaboration, and always rolling up the sleeves to work with the team.

And oh, my assistant put a live stream of the Charles River on the TV in the conference. So, in the end, I still have my view.

Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2019, women still earn about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?

I’ve seen much empirical research on the extent of and trends in the gender wage gap, some of which is conducted by our faculty here at Boston University Questrom School of Business. In the aggregate, women in 2019 still earn 80 cents for every dollar that a man makes. We also know that the gender pay gap declined much more slowly at the top of the wage distribution that at the middle or the bottom, and is noticeably higher at the top.

What’s going on? Conventional human capital variables like education levels are relatively unimportant and explain little of the gender wage gap. Given that women today are more likely to have a college degree than males, differences in education levels simply do not provide an explanation.

But, even if women have the same education levels as men, women and men choose very different fields / occupations / industries and this is perhaps the main explanation behind the gender wage gap. Women are much more likely to work in occupations that don’t pay that well, for example, teachers, nurses, administration of non-profits, social workers, etc. versus scientists, technologists, mathematicians, entrepreneurs, and business executives. The careers they choose provide inherently different wages.

Here is what’s really interesting. Wag gaps are most significant in high skilled occupations, where we control, if you will, for the differences in occupation choices between men and women. This implicates something deeper is going on.

Socio-cultural differences in gender roles and the gendered division of labor are really drivers of this social problem. Women’s higher demands for household management, childcare, caregiving overall, cooking, etc. leads to them to work fewer hours in the market than men, thereby earning lower wages overall. This effect accumulates. In some occupations like law and management, the fact that women work fewer hours than men prevents them from reaching the top of these occupations, and earning the high wages that these occupations can command.

Because of their gendered social roles as mothers and primary caregivers, women also take more breaks from the labor force than do men. As a result they accumulate less experience. This is very costly in terms of wages.

Lastly, research based on experimental evidence strongly suggests that psychological attributes and non-cognitive skills may also explain some of the differences in wages. Competitiveness, gender differences in risk taking attitudes, and gendered differences in negotiation skills have been implicated. This is not a primary explanation but it’s part of the equation. That these differences are not necessarily from nature, but rather from nurture, further reinforces that societal norms and perceptions are very much in play.

Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?

Our attention to this issue starts with our hiring practices. We require evidence of a diverse pool in terms of gender balance in order for a search to proceed. We train people on gender and other unconscious biases such that these blindspots are known and actively considered. We are very conscious of gender when making decisions about starting salaries, promotions and pay raises, and merit-based pay increases. We analyze all of our salaries by field of specialization, rank, and gender to make sure that bias is not operating. We set aside a pool of money for “equity adjustments” should we find salary differences that are not explained by experience, productivity, and performance.

Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or example for each.

· Better parental leave policies. There is some evidence that paternity leave leads to a more equal share of household work. Maternity leave helps women stay in the labor force.

· High quality, affordable childcare. These services will especially support women in the bottom/middle economic classes.

· Reduce gender biases / gender roles. It goes without saying that efforts to change the cultural and social barriers that keep women out of certain professions, frame childcare as “women’s work,” and perpetuate narratives of fundamental differences between the genders exacerbate the inequality that we see. If we are going to tackle this societal problem, important questions remain. Why do women choose different occupations? Why are they disproportionally responsible for childcare and housekeeping?

· Restructure work such that flexibility does not come at a high cost. For example, OB/GYN professionals restructure their work to practice settings, where schedules are set yet flexible and where women can more readily combine career/family.

· Educational/retraining programs to help women re-enter the workforce after time spent raising or caring for the family.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to ignite collective consciousness and action around the broader notion of faculty diversity in business higher education. I believe we are all sincerely aligned around the goal of increasing the diversity of our faculty, but I am not sure we share a common foundation around the question of why this matters and therefore how to approach the problem. Too often –and I am simplifying here to make the argument –people take a “check-the-box” mentality and focus their efforts on recruiting different races, genders, or other underrepresented socio-demographics, maybe even checking off two boxes with one hire. But it’s the reasons behind this that matter, and if you ponder that, you quickly get to our responsibility as business educators to represent different world views, different experiences, and different thought-worlds because that is the essential (and, increasingly so) reality of the culture we live in. When faculty recruit and hire, the default (and perhaps unconscious) tendency is go to familiar communities of like-minded scholars and classically-sanctioned “top schools,” and this narrows versus broadens the views brought to bear on scholarly research or content in the classroom. We have a long way to go here — some institutions more than others — and perhaps this shift in mindset can help propel us forward.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Work hard, play hard, live harder. My Dad always touted a philosophy that if you work hard enough, you can reach your goals. But you have to balance that with making sure you allow time and space for the experiences and relationships that bring you true joy. Live every day with balance across these domains and life is rewarding. Life is a gift. A fleeting gift. We can all be gone tomorrow, and we need to be able to say “thank you. that was a good day.”

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Stephen King. I devour his work have the deepest respect for his writing craft. I’m also thoroughly inspired by his personal story. King was really in a tough place when he first tried breaking into writing: living in a trailer, working multiple jobs to make ends meet and support the family. I read that he and his wife had to borrow clothes for their wedding and had no telephone because it was too expensive. To come from this, and achieve what he has achieved…to me that is the ultimate of inspiration.

King also received innumerable rejection letters for his works along the way, and I find it very inspirational to hear his message about staying the course. As an academic writer I can really relate to this! Five rounds, 14 years, for one paper and sometimes a flat rejection to show for it. In his book On Writing, King shares: “By the time I was 14…the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.” That’s an empowering way to face what some may consider to be failure.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.


Boston University Questrom School of Business Dean Susan Fournier: “Here Are 5 Things We Need To Do was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.