In 2010 Harvard Business School made an unprecedented decision, led by the university’s first woman president: the school was going to get a gender makeover.
The class of 2013 became guinea pigs in a two-year study and experiment to improve the quality of student life and career outcomes for the women graduating from the business school.
What the study found was not totally surprising: women students said they found the business school to be a hostile environment where they were judged by their looks and pigeonholed into being either “hot” or “smart”, never both.
Women students – some of the smartest in the country who had fought hard for competitive study placements – were silencing themselves in a bid to be liked. And they lacked role models, with female academics making up only 20 percent of the tenured faculty.
In response, the business school undertook an experiment to improve the learning environment for women students and offer them more women role models, with researchers and counsellors partaking in classes and running discussion groups to guide students, staff and faculty through the experiment.
By graduation, female teachers and students had increased performance levels, class participation, and were winning more awards. However, many male students reported feeling resentful of this attention on female success.
In 2017 business schools still face an uphill battle for gender equality: to create it for their women and sell it to men.
For MBA programs, gender equality means better representation of women students on MBA programs. It also means more support for job placements and the skills women need to succeed in male-dominated industries where they face the glass ceiling and the gender pay gap.
One school working hard to change the proportion of women studying on its MBA programs is the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith (RHS) School of Business, which has set the goal of 50/50 representation of women by 2020.
Sharon Strange Lewis is the schools’ senior director of Women and Diversity Initiatives. Strange Lewis was a student on Maryland’s MBA herself, graduating in 2005. She says she remembers there being 23-25 people in her class, but only four were women. She was the only African-American woman in her cohort.
Today women make up 36 percent of the Executive MBA class at the University of Maryland, 35 percent of the full-time MBA, 34 percent of the part-time MBA and 30 percent of the online MBA.
“So we still have – definitely – room to grow,” says Strange Lewis. “That’s why we’re trying to make a serious effort to really amp up our pipeline.”
At her school the pipeline approach means exposing young women and girls to business education early-on and supporting them through business school, into employment and beyond.
That view to post-graduation employment has proven fruitful, with Maryland bucking the job placement trend: “our women graduates have a higher rate of job placement than our men,” she says.
The pipeline approach
One organization that also recognizes the need for a pipeline of women in business is the 30% Club, launched in 2010 with the aim of getting at least 30 percent female representation on the boards of FTSE-100 companies in the UK. Thirty percent is said to be the critical point at which a group stops being a minority and becomes a mainstream voice.
Today women have 27 percent representation on FTSE-100 boards, up from 12.5 percent when the program launched.
According to Francoise Higson, Business Manager at ANZ Bank in London and 30% Club steering committee member, “It was apparent from the get-go that it’s no use us getting to the minimum 30 percent we’re aiming for on FTSE-100 companies if we haven’t got a sustainable pipeline of senior women coming up beneath that in order to feed into it and make it sustainable.”
As a result, the 30% Club began to work on what it calls a ‘schoolroom to board room continuum’. The organization now partners with a number of top business schools—such as London Business School and the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School—providing scholarships to women applicants to incentivize more women to undertake an MBA.
Higson says offering scholarships is an important way to support women in business because “financial barriers seem to be more of a problem for female applicants than it is for males”.
As women generally go on to earn less than men, it takes them longer to pay off study loans, making post-graduate study less attractive for women.
Edinburgh Business School offers two 30% Club scholarships: one for the one-year MBA on-campus in Scotland, available to applicants from around the world. The other is for the part-time MBA in Malaysia, which allows a woman to continue her work while earning an MBA.
The Dean of Edinburgh Business School Heather McGregor says she designed the new one-year MBA on the Edinburgh campus with the needs of entrepreneurs – and female businesswomen – in mind.
McGregor—who wrote the Mrs Moneypenny column in the Financial Times—notes that globally, there seems to be little variation in gender equality among MBA programs.
“I just came back from a weekend teaching in Myanmar,” she says, “and even there, about one third of the class were female.”
“It’s about 35 percent everywhere [we teach]. The question for me now is why is it not 50 percent?”
Berkeley throws down the gauntlet for other top business schools
Top-tier business schools are often accused of dragging the chain when it comes to gender equality on their MBA programs.
With higher salaries on average, men are better able to afford the most expensive programs, they have higher rates of job placement and their incomes continue to increase post-MBA at a rate much higher than women.
But one top school standing out from the pack is the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley. There, they currently have 40 percent women students overall, across all their MBA programs.
The school’s Gender Equity Initiative, launched by the MBA class of 2015 after realizing that only 29 percent of their classmates were women—worked closely with the Haas admissions office to ensure things would change.
And it worked: As a result of their efforts, the class of 2016 had 43 percent female representation.
Peter Johnson, the Assistant Dean for the full-time MBA and admissions says what made the difference wasn’t the minor uptick in the number of women applying, but rather an increase in the number of women who, after being offered places on the program, decided to accept them.
He credits the Gender Equity Initiative with the jump in female students, as they were able to mobilize classmates to talk with prospective students about what it’s like to study at Berkeley-Haas as a woman.
“I think one of the challenges that all business schools face is that some women, perhaps in the past, have self-selected out of applying to business schools or have not opted to accept an offer of admissions because they’re unsure how the program will fit with their career goals,” says Johnson.
“They might have the impression that business schools are not friendly for women in the same way that, I think, a lot of areas of business have long been considered to be predominantly led by men.”
Three years ago, another initiative targeting gender discrimination was launched at the school: the Manbassadors Program.
Johnson explains, “they’re men that are basically helping educate their peers about how women are not always viewed equally in the workplace and how men, working together with women, can change that environment.”
“I think all these things have helped to make strong female MBA candidates feel that this is a place where they can thrive and move forward and, in other words, to create the environment which is a welcoming place for MBA students of all genders.”
- Women’s Leadership Symposium (U.S. Marine Photo by Cpl. Natalie M. Rostran/Released)
- Good Morning Edinburgh by Dave Sutherland (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)