6 Ways To Make Business School An Inclusive Environment For Women

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“I’ve had my abilities and commitment to my job questioned. I’ve been left out of key industry events and social gatherings. I’ve had meetings with external leaders where they primarily addressed the more junior male colleagues. I’ve had my comments frequently interrupted and my ideas ignored until they were rephrased by men. No matter how often this all happened, it still hurt.”

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, also one of Google’s earliest employees, shared her experiences of gender bias in her career in response to a controversial memo circulated in 2017 by a former Google employee claiming that the gender gap in tech was down to biological causes.

Wojcicki announced last month that she was stepping down to “start a new chapter focused on my family, health, and personal projects I’m passionate about.”

The number of female employees at YouTube increased from 24% in 2014 when she became CEO to nearly 30% at the time of her article. When she completed her MBA at UCLA Anderson in 1998, Susan Wojcicki was herself a member of a cohort with 30% women students.

In 2022, more than half of business school programs reported a stable or growing number of applications from women, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) Application Trends survey – clearly a positive push towards advancing gender parity.

The early-career Masters in Management (MiM) attracts particularly strong numbers of women, with 49 of the top 100 programs in the FT ranking reporting at least 50% female students in the MiM Class of 2022. Specialized Masters programmes in Marketing and Human Resources typically appeal to more women students.

But for the full-time MBA, Masters in Finance and in particular the Executive MBA there is still more to be done. Only 11 of the 100 full-time MBA programs ranked by the Financial Times in February 2023 have 50% or more female students. A further 38 schools have at least 40% female students, though that compares to only 5 schools in 2003.

For more senior professionals considering an Executive MBA, only 5 schools in the FT EMBA ranking of 2022 can claim 50% or more female students, with only 9 others that have at least 40% female students. Admittedly that compares to only 3 schools two decades ago.

Gender parity is not the only way to measure or ensure that business education is an inclusive environment for women. Achieving a 50% gender split on an MBA program does not necessarily mean that women feel included, or that they have equal opportunities within both the business education arena and the post-study workplace.

Meet the women thriving in male-dominated industries

Inclusivity is a more nuanced and multi-faceted topic, with more creative initiatives to truly level the playing field and ensure women actually feel a business school is an inclusive and equitable environment for them.

So, how can business schools tackle gender biases in both business and education?

Collaborate with the experts

Left to a business school alone, gender diversity initiatives may not be as effective as they could be, or could even risk missing the mark. That is why it is important to work with external organizations to ensure that these initiatives will be more effective, according to Donna Swinford, Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and Admissions for MBA Programs at Chicago Booth.

“One of the best ways to enhance diversity in MBA programs is through collaboration with leading organizations that address the under-representation of women in business leadership roles,” Swinford says. By collaborating with companies like the Forte Foundation – an organisation who offer a combination of scholarships, career resources, networking and mentoring opportunities to empower more women to pursue business careers – and other initiatives like the Women’s Leadership Conference, business schools can provide female students with more resources and tools to succeed in business school and beyond.

“These partnerships not only help us identify and recruit talent, but also promote gender diversity and equity throughout the business landscape,” affirms Swinford. “These relationships enable us to expand the talent pipeline into leading industries and companies, and foster communities that will continue to empower women for professional success throughout their careers”.

Look at your own governance

It’s a good idea to promote women in leadership, but if your own institution doesn’t have gender parity at the highest level, can you really preach inclusive management if you’re not practicing it? France’s emlyon business school is one of a small number of business schools that can claim to have a strong gender balance across all dimensions of the business school.

Isabelle Huault, President of emlyon business school, stepped into this role in 2020 and, since 2021, the number of women on the business school’s executive team has increased. The share of women in the governance bodies is now 60% of the Executive Board and 42% of the Steering Committee. With 41% female professors, the school also has one of the most gender-balanced faculties of the world’s leading business schools.

“The best way to promote gender diversity is of course to integrate this issue at the very heart of our organizations,” says Isabelle Huault. “The impact of strong role models for young women is essential, it is important that our female students see our leadership as role models too”.

Female-focused scholarships

Collaborating with external organizations to improve access for women to business school is, of course, a great idea. But there is nothing stopping business schools implementing their own initiatives to expanding access for women too. One school that has done just this is UCL Global Business School for Health (GBSH), based in London. The world’s first-ever business school for health, which was launched in 2021, offers scholarships for female healthcare leaders.

The women’s healthcare leader’s scholarship is for female students who have the potential to move into a senior management or C-suite roles, where there clearly is still a glass ceiling in health and healthcare professions. “Research confirms that women are the primary consumers of healthcare as well as the workforce, but they remain underrepresented in leadership roles,” says Julie Davies, Director of the MBA Health program at the UCL GBSH.

The business schools first MBA cohort welcomed 63% women students, much higher than any other ranked MBA program globally, so clearly this scholarship is having the desired impact. “Initiatives like scholarships should all be part of an EDI action plan,” insists Julie Davies, “which contributes to prioritising gender diversity and equity.”

Create meaningful female-focused clubs

The opportunity to network with those who have similar interests is one of the key reasons students go to business school. It’s as much about the skills you develop, as it is the people you meet. Long have there been business clubs focused on areas like finance, consulting and marketing, but schools are now seeing the importance of female-focused clubs too.

Born out of a personal passion, Dr. Sowon Kim, Professor at EHL Hospitality Business School, launched the business school’s Women in Leadership initiative in 2018. “The initiative was born out of frustration, following a showcase of ‘successful alumni’ which lacked the visibility of female leaders, despite 60% of our student body being women,” says Dr. Kim. “The first thing I did was to approach three female directors in our institution to bring them on board and propose the idea to the then (female) Executive Dean and Managing Director of Academia”.

The initiative focuses on projects regarding women in leadership, and on a wider scale the initiative aims to promote leadership, culture, and policies that foster diverse, balanced, and people-focused environments. Today, it has a dynamic female membership across different roles and business units, and annually engages over 2,000 students, staff, alumni, and externals through a wide range of activities.

Set up female-focused research groups

Achieving real-life impact is the end goal of many initiatives focused on gender parity and inclusivity. But creating this real-life impact starts with having the specific knowledge to do so. That is why Rotterdam School of Management’s (RSM) Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship launched SHE Leads, an initiative that encourages female entrepreneurship and leadership by uncovering the latest research insights around the topic.

For Katty Hsu, a senior researcher & start-up facilitator at the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship the main goal of the SHE Leads initiative is, “to deepen our activities in research and education in order to foster more inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems. We want to inspire the next generation of female entrepreneurs at Erasmus University Rotterdam and our broader network.”

The SHE Leads team works regularly with RSM to organise numerous events specifically for women who have an interest in entrepreneurship, as well as conducting research. These events have brought together over 300 aspiring female entrepreneurs, who are also matched with successful female entrepreneurs and leaders to receive tailored personal and professional advice. “The purpose is to plant the seeds of many women-led business initiatives in the years to come,” says Hsu.

Professors are role models too

Many business schools foster and facilitate the opportunity for students to be connected with external role models and mentors, which can be highly beneficial for students’ future careers. But what about the professors at the front of the classroom?

At Nyenrode Business University, in the Netherlands. Prof. dr. Lidewey van der Sluis, Professor of Strategic Management and Organizational Leadership, believes that professors should act as role models too.

“As a professor at a business school, you are a role model – inside the organization but also in the classroom,” she says. “Making all professors aware of their role triggers inclusive behaviour and contributes to making the business school a safe space. This means, for example, that we as faculty rely on the assumption that we all act inclusively and socially responsibly and ring the bell when colleagues seem to be excluded or marginalized.”

By making faculty role models, students receive mentoring on a much regular basis than just once a week, or ad hoc as to when they need it. “Kindness and an inclusive mindset are central pillars in organizations and society,” says Prof. Van der Sluis. If these qualities are practiced throughout the business school experience, it will ensure everyone feels included no matter what gender they are.

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