(Bloomberg) -- INSEAD Business School had a perennial problem with its MBAs. The grades of female students consistently lagged those of men. So a professor did an experiment: She had all students, male and female, do a written exercise to affirm their core values -- and managed to narrow the grade gap by 89 percent.
While the exercise had no effect on men, grades for women MBAs rose to men’s levels at both campuses, in Singapore and in Fontainebleau, France, according to Zoe Kinias, the professor originally from the U.S. who devised it. The exercise turns out to give women "an invisible shield" against feeling undervalued in environments where there are majority men, Kinias said in an interview at the INSEAD Singapore campus where she teaches organizational behavior.
Now at least one large Singapore-based bank is adapting the exercise for employees, according to the Financial Women’s Association of Singapore which is working with INSEAD to find financial firms amenable to implementing it. A pharmaceutical company in Singapore is looking into doing so as well.
"Thoughtful introduction of this type of intervention has potential to improve gender balance anywhere women are underrepresented and there are beliefs that men are more suited to the job, including leadership within competitive global business," Kinias said.
As women continue to be underrepresented in industries from finance to technology, this method of intervening to improve performance through building self-esteem could help in combating gender imbalance -- which the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates is costing as much as $12 trillion in losses to the global economy -- particularly in companies where “women are doubting whether they’re valued and they belong and they’re going to be taken seriously, and they have to work that much harder to prove themselves,” said Kinias.
In the written exercise given at INSEAD’s orientation for incoming students, they’re given a list of 10 values, asked to pick three, and explain why and how the values are important and are being implemented in daily life. There’s no right answer. No significant cultural or geographical differences between France and Singapore have turned up in the five years since she started the experiment, Kinias said.
The mere fact of reflecting on who they are, what’s important to them and why boosts confidence and therefore performance, reducing the gap in women’s grade point averages, which were previously 2.8 out of 4 compared with 3.2 for men.
“The intervention, what it does is level the playing field in terms of assertiveness and confidence in the beginning of our program,” Timothy Van Zandt, INSEAD’s dean of faculty and research based in France, said by phone. “Business schools have a responsibility" to help women achieve in an environment where they "feel equally respected and empowered.”
Relationships with family and friends are consistent top picks, and almost half of the graduating class of 2018 also said they prized “enjoying life/living in the moment.” Other values include health and fitness, protecting the environment, helping people in need, and spirituality or religion.
“Sometimes people imagine looking in the mirror and saying, ‘You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and people like you,’ which can have its benefits, but this is deeper than that," said Kinias. "It’s getting to ‘I am a person who does things that I think are valuable.”
Kinias took inspiration from a Stanford University study published in 2006, that detailed the benefits of self-affirmation for African-American students in the U.S. Underrepresented groups often have a fear called "stereotype threat," which is a “concern about confirming one’s stereotypes about one’s group,” she said. Interventions help reduce the demotivating impact of that fear, freeing up time for students to focus, or pushing them to try harder, she said.
“They no longer end up confirming the stereotype that they’re worried about confirming because they’re not wasting energy doubting themselves,” Kinias said.
Members of underrepresented groups, such as the 34 percent female student body at INSEAD, experience more self-doubt when entering a new social system, Kinias said.
“You can imagine a scene of the 28-year-old woman," Kinias said. "She knows what it means to be a woman in business, but she’s stepping into this new scene and she’s looking around and trying to figure out, ‘Am I valued here? Do I belong here?’ and so there’s where the self doubt comes in.”
INSEAD declined to make students available for interviews.
Women make up “a larger proportion of discouraged job seekers and of those outside the labor force,” according to the World Economic Forum 2016 annual report on gender. The economic gender gap would require 47 to 1,951 years to be completely eradicated, depending on the region, it said.
In Singapore, 10 global financial institutions surveyed by INSEAD and the Financial Women’s Association found that although women hold almost half of jobs, men were still five times more likely than women to be managing directors. Organizations polled included local offices of BlackRock Inc., ING Bank NV, Nomura Holdings Inc. and National Australian Bank Ltd.
At least one Singaporean bank, which asked not to be identified, is implementing the values exercise to help women achieve greater career results, said Low Chin Loo, head of events and formerly president of the Financial Women’s Association of Singapore.
“One common refrain we hear from women is lack of self-confidence and how that impedes their ascent to the top echelons of corporate life,” she said. Self-affirmation exercises can help “address some of the issues that some women face, not just in work but also in their daily lives.”
Kinias said her team at INSEAD is also in early discussions with a pharmaceutical company about using the intervention.
“We’re seeing a larger push and awareness in Singapore society about the need to look at this issue and to address it,” said Low. “It is very comforting that we’ve advanced to that stage that these things are not just behind closed doors, not ignored by leadership anymore.”
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.