HBS1908 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: HBS1908 via Wikimedia Commons

Over the last several decades there has been concern about gender differences in performance in school in a variety of topics. Much work has explored whether boys and girls differ in their grades in STEM topics in K-12 education.

One interesting observation is that gender differences also exist in more advanced education settings. A paper by Aaron Wallen, Michael Morris, Beth Devine, and Jackson Lu in the August 2017 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored differences in performance of men and women getting Master of Business Administration degrees at elite universities.

In one study, researchers gathered data from over 300 students (over 100 women and over 200 men) in a top-tier MBA program. They found that the students got similar grades in courses related to social aspects of business (like change management and organizational behavior), but that men received somewhat higher grades than women in technical classes (like corporate finance and decision modeling). 

What led to this grade difference in quantitative classes?

The authors of the study identified three primary factors.

First, there was a difference in academic aptitude between the men and women who were admitted to the program. The men admitted to the program had higher scores on the quantitative section of the GMAT (the test students take for admission to MBA programs) than the women. This difference in test scores accounted for some of the GPA difference.

The researchers also explored why there was this overall difference in GMAT scores. Far fewer women than men apply to MBA programs, and so competition for the best women applicants among these programs is fierce.

A second factor is that men and women appear to have different interests in business. The researchers examined interests that these students mentioned in their applications to the graduate program. On average, the women tended to list more interests related to social factors, while men expressed more interest in technical-related factors. This difference in interests was also correlated with differences in GPA for these quantitative classes.

The third factor is assertiveness. MBA programs are set up with a lot of social interaction.  Students are encouraged to participate in class. In addition, they are assigned to work groups of five students and are expected to discuss and even argue with their fellow students while doing homework. In this study, students self-rated their own assertiveness. One rating focused on their assertiveness overall, while the other focused on their assertiveness related to quantitative classes. 

General assertiveness did not account for the differences in quantitative GPA, but assertiveness in quantitative classes did relate to the quantitative grades. A second study used peer assessments of assertiveness and found a similar result. Statistical analyses found that this effect of assertiveness did not go away, even when also considering quantitative aptitude and interests. That is, the difference in assertiveness was not just a result of aptitude or interests.

The researchers also explored other factors like the amount of effort students put into studying and their interest in social relationships with their fellow students.  None of these factors were related to the difference in GPA in quantitative classes.

Why would women be less assertive in quantitative classes? One factor is that people are generally quite sensitive to how they are perceived by others. While assertiveness is a trait prized in men, it can make women feel as though they come across as “mean” or “pushy”. As a result, women may not participate as actively in class or study groups as much as men. But, learning is affected by people’s level of participation.  The more active people are when learning, the more that they are likely to learn.

Often, after studies like this, people begin to think about ways to intervene to reduce gender differences in performance. From these data, focusing on assertiveness might be the best place to influence performance. This is a complex issue, of course, because part of the reason that women in these programs are less assertive than men is because of the reactions they get when they do act more assertive. 

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Wallen, A.S., Morris, M.W., Devine, B.A., & Lu, J.G. (2017). Understanding the MBA gender gap: Women respond to gender norms by reducing public assertiveness, but not private effort, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(8), 1150-1170.

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