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Focus on Women: How B-Schools Are Working to Engender Change

March 2015

By Lee Davidson, Senior Associate, Copywriter/Editor, AACSB International

The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that “[o]nly 5 per cent or less of the CEOs of the world’s largest corporations are women,” and “women own and manage over 30 per cent of all businesses, but they are more likely to be found in micro and small enterprises.” Statistics like these are not difficult to find these days, and they go on to include other inequalities among men and women in business, such as pay, promotion, and treatment from coworkers and superiors. Because of these disparities, female students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels can benefit from women-focused programs that encourage the pursuit of business as a major as well as provide advice in workplace advocacy. Such programming is best positioned in business schools because of their educational platform and their potential to engage with industry partners. Here we bring you three different examples of efforts currently being made to help change the statistics of women in business.

The Belk College of Business at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, in collaboration with MetLife Foundation, is one school that is working on its own solution. The school recently announced a gift from the MetLife Foundation of 100,000 USD to launch a Women in Business Leadership Program, which will begin in the fall of 2015. We contacted both parties to find out how the collaboration was initiated and what each institution hopes the program will achieve. Jim Boylan, vice president of human resources at MetLife, says his organization has worked with UNC Charlotte since 2013, when MetLife moved its U.S. retail headquarters to Charlotte. Boylan says UNCC was welcoming and supportive of the relocation from the beginning, and that sparked a congenial relationship between the two. The gift to the Belk College in particular came about through discussions with the university about their needs as well as feedback from students and alumni, and a women’s leadership program “aligned with the values of diversity in the workplace at MetLife,” which has “a strong commitment to develop women in leadership.” Boylan says MetLife plans to remain an active participant in Belk’s program, and he believes it will help undergraduate women develop skills and relationships as they begin entering the workforce.

Dean Steven H. Ott of the Belk College has the same goals for the program, adding that it “will create enhanced experiences to help undergraduate women prepare for the world of work by improving the knowledge, skills, and values necessary to confidently enter into leadership roles.” Ott says the program will be open to all Belk College undergraduate students. It will involve workshops, networking, speaking engagements, internship opportunities, and a certificate of completion at the finale of the program. One such workshop focuses specifically on negotiating salaries—a much needed tool for women entering the labor force for the first time or moving into higher positions. As for continued funding of the program, Ott says the college has designated the Student Center for Professional Development—a career resource center—“as one of its fundraising priorities” and a source to sustain the program. And the sustainability of a program like Belk’s is necessary if workplace gender imbalances are to diminish.

Studies show that women in the workplace are either content to earn less than their male counterparts or afraid to speak up, out of fear of backlash, including negative evaluations. What they see in the company hierarchy—male colleagues climbing the corporate ladder faster and speaking their minds more freely—they often cannot aspire to without perceived or real repercussions. That many cultures hold a deep-rooted, often unfavorable image of women as leaders can be a significant detractor for today’s women pursuing either higher degrees in business or higher positions in the workforce. Wharton professor Matthew Bidwell observes in the Financial Post that, “When you think about the image of the investment banker, it’s self-centred, it’s money-oriented and it’s aggressive—particularly low on the kind of characteristics society thinks of as being appropriate for women.” Akane Otani and Jonathan Rodkin in the same article point out that biases against women are not necessarily intentional but are ingrained in our society’s subconscious. Business schools, therefore, face the challenge of getting below the surface, into a decades-old perception of women as less “appropriate” for leadership positions than men, and then changing it. And while the Belk School with its tie to industry offers one way to address this obstacle, other schools are confronting it differently.

The University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business is also working to change the gender statistics in management education and industry. The school has publicly pledged to work toward a goal of “50/50” percent men/women in its MBA program, by the year 2020. Through focused recruitment efforts beginning at the high school level, specialized MBA programming, alumni participation, and an ongoing alliance with the Forté Foundation—a nonprofit organization that helps unite top companies and business schools globally for the purpose of advancing women in the workforce—the Smith school is setting its sights on equality in education, and beyond. Smith’s vice dean, Joyce Russell, whom we spoke with about mentoring opportunities targeted for this initiative, says, “We are definitely looking at expanding the mentoring provided to women. In fact, we have several programs that enable women of all programs (undergrads, FTMBAs, PTMBAs, and EMBAs) to interact and work more closely together. This should allow for more mentoring of younger women by more experienced women.” And with corporate sponsors including Deloitte, McCormick, and Hershey, women participants in the program will have special opportunities to network with the companies they may one day rise within.

The inequity of female business leaders has not gone unnoticed by a number of other business school administrators. Soon there will be a consortium of female b-school deans to help recruit more female students into business majors, encourage them to pursue higher degrees, and ultimately place more women in top business school and industry positions. The consortium was brought together by Judy Olian, AACSB’s second female board chair (2007–08) and dean of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, and also includes AACSB’s current chair, Linda Livingstone, dean at the George Washington University School of Business, among many other influential deans—not to mention senior White House adviser Betsey Stevenson. These women leaders “have a simple, though hard-to-achieve goal in mind: To inspire more women to consider an undergraduate business major or minor, or a pre-experience master’s degree in business”—and that would be a first step toward getting more women into leadership positions.

By infusing women-centered leadership initiatives into their programming with strong connections to business, these schools and deans are taking a huge, public step toward addressing the obstacles that women, specifically, face in business school and the workforce. And while excellent efforts like these are being made to level the gender playing field in business, if more measurable change is to occur, the efforts need to expand. What initiatives is your school making to help promote female business leaders?

To learn more related to this topic, make sure to read “Closing the Gender Gap” in the March/April issue of BizEd Magazine.