Professor Johanna Hunsaker Empowers Students in the “Dead Poets Society” of USD

Friday, March 19, 2021TOPICS: Spotlights

USD School of Business Professor of Management, Jo HunsakerJo Hunsaker, professor of management at the USD School of Business
begin quoteI never thought I would take a class at USD that would change my outlook and motivation like Professor Hunsaker's Women in Management class did.

A Tribe of Strangers (aka MGMT 360: Women in Management) is coined as “the Dead Poets Society of the 21st century."

A Tribe of Strangers is a captivating film that follows 20 women through a journey of growth and connection. Johanna Hunsaker stars as a university professor that teaches her students that oppression can be challenged with creativity. The women in her class bond by unifying as a community that articulates frustration and learns how to overcome adversity. The message that “women must put their differences aside and support each other” makes this a heartwarming new picture.

While Johanna Hunsaker may not be a Hollywood actress, she is in fact a management professor at the University of San Diego School of Business who teaches Women in Management, an elective class for business students. And the synopsis above is how one of her students responded when tasked with describing the class as a hit movie. 

Women in business and society

In 1985, Professor Hunsaker designed and introduced the Women in Management class at USD to examine the role of women in society and work both historically and in the present day. It also explores barriers that women face when entering organizations. Students leave the class having developed effective management and leadership skills, as well as personal career strategies that help them overcome systemic barriers.

Not only does the Women in Management class teach students the history of gender roles in society and managerial techniques but it also empowers them to break the glass ceiling. 

The class, which is open to both males and females, begins with an introduction of the second wave of feminism that emerged throughout the U.S. in the 1970s including the paths that female leaders such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor paved for women today. 

“We talk about male-dominated industries, ethical implications and legal policy changes that emerged as women entered the workplace such as policies around sex discrimination, gender discrimination and sexual harassment,” says Professor Hunsaker.

“Most of the students in my classes today haven't experienced much discrimination yet, though some of them have along the way. Because there's still sexism and there still is bias against women, but it's deeply entrenched and hidden,” she continued. 

In recent years, Professor Hunsaker has shifted some of the class’ curriculum to reflect the curiosities of students in her classroom today. “I’ve really noticed over the last six years or so that our students are much more well versed on the topics we discuss. And as USD has become a more diverse population, students want to talk more about the intersectionality between gender and other issues surrounding identity such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and more,” says Professor Hunsaker. 

Exploring gender dynamics through applied projects

What drives home Professor Hunsaker’s lessons are the projects and assignments designed to expand the perspectives of her students when it comes to the subtleties of gender dynamics. 

One module that students complete focuses on the differences between male and female ethical behavior, which is based on a popular research study that poses a series of ethical scenarios.  

“In one scenario, you are a toy store manager and the most popular seasonal Christmas toy this year is the Peter Panda stuffed animal,” explains Professor Hunsaker. “They're really hard to come by and your store only has 10 of them, which 10 people have already left deposits on. A couple of days before the shipment of Peter Pandas arrives at your store, a woman walks in crying and says that her child is very sick in the hospital. And all that that her child wants for Christmas is a Peter Panda. Would you give it to her or not? And why or why not?” 

“So I asked my students to this exercise as a mini experiment. They asked five males and five females what they would do in this scenario. Then they had to analyze their experiment and compare it to what the research showed,” she continued.

In the original research study, there was a significant difference in the responses between males and females. Depending on your answer to the scenario, you can likely surmise what that difference is: males are more likely than females to say no. 

The capstone project in Professor Hunsaker’s Women in Management class is a career case study interview where students are asked to interview a successful woman in a high level leadership position and then report about the process and what they learned. Approximately one in four students interviews their mom, an exercise that is often particularly eye-opening in understanding her career trajectory and obstacles she’s faced along the way.

“Students always share that this is a really great experience. Especially for the guys in my class, they often say that they used to see their mom as someone who made their lunch and drove them to football. But now, they see her in a whole new light and love her even more,” says Professor Hunsaker. 

Closing the gender gap in business

Today, 60 percent of undergraduate students that graduate from a four-year university are females. Since the 1970s, women have caught up and even surpassed men in receiving higher education. However, women still have a ways to go in other areas. 

“A woman’s role in business has evolved over time but it has evolved slowly,” says Professor Hunsaker. “One phenomenon that persists and contributes to the gender pay gap between men and women is that women who want to be really successful often derail after securing entry level positions. To help bridge the gap, it’s important to understand why women are less likely to climb the career ladder, whether it be to stay home and raise a family, choosing to work in industries with limited career growth, reaching the glass ceiling so to speak, or something else.”

Ultimately, Professor Hunsaker’s goal is to empower the students who take her class to be ready for life after graduation, both in and out of the workplace. And based on the countless letters she’s received from former students (including the excerpt below from an alum who graduated in 2007) it sounds like she’s accomplished that goal time and time again.

“I never thought I would take a class at USD that would change my outlook and motivation like your class did. Really, you crafted the beginnings of my success. You taught me to go for it, whatever 'it’' may have been. I had heard that statement throughout my life but it never took form until you taught me the tools needed to actually materialize that thought. I could write a novel about all the valuable lessons you taught me. Your class was hands down the best class I have taken at USD.”


Gabrielle Horta
(619) 260-4468