Empowering Women to Innovate

Empowering Women to Innovate

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change,” puts innovation by women and for women at the heart of efforts to achieve gender equality.

March 8 marks this year’s annual International Women’s Day. The theme of “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change” puts innovation by women and girls, for women and girls, at the heart of efforts to achieve gender equality. Goal 5 of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), calls for all, including the higher education community, to contribute to empowering all women and girls and achieving gender equality and by 2030.

Business schools are well placed to make an impact on the targets set in Goal 5 through the internal actions of their organization, the ways they train and influence their students, and the impact they have in their communities and beyond through research and partnerships. Here are some examples of how schools around the world are working toward Goal 5 and celebrating International Women’s Day every day.

Programs and Access

The University of St. Gallen in Switzerland’s post-experience diploma program Women Back to Business is designed for women who want to re-enter the job market or pursue a more challenging position. It offers career coaching, skills training, workshops, and practical experience in a company, public organization, or NGO. The German program is in its 11th year and the English program is in its third year.

In addition to offering programs especially for women, schools are also looking at how to continue to increase the number of women who have access to business degrees. For example, the University of Sydney Business School in 2015 became the first MBA program in Australia to admit more women than men. Through a partnership with the school’s Women, Work & Leadership Research Group and U.N. Women that aim to promote gender equality at the most senior levels of the nation’s public, corporate, and nonprofit sectors, they give inspiring women scholarships to attend either an MBA or EMBA.

Community Impact

Students at the Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University have the opportunity to manage a microfinance program called GLOBE that provides loans to female entrepreneurs in the developing world. Not only does this help people in need help themselves and their families out of poverty, but it also serves as an excellent opportunity to educate students about the world of microfinance.

Many schools now have programs where students work for organizations in the community. In Mexico, students at Universidad Panamericana de Alta Direccion de Empresa volunteer on a special program that aims to empower single mothers to improve their lives and the economy by becoming micro-entrepreneurs. In Indonesia, students at the School of Business and Management at the Institut Teknologi Bandung undertake short consulting projects with local communities in Indonesia, most recently working with a community of widows to help them recycle plastic waste into new products that could be sold for additional income in order to increase their, and their family’s, income and well-being.

Business Impact

At the University of Leicester School of Business, a team of researchers from five European countries looked at how to improve women’s accessibility to the governing boards of sports federations or associations of all sports under Erasmus+ Sports actions.

In Ireland, as part of the Gender Equality in decision-Making (GEM) project funded by the European Commission, researchers at the University of Limerick’s Kemmy Business School developed a toolkit that enables organizations to increase the numbers of women taking on senior decision-making roles, and in particular sitting on key decision-making committees internally. The guide has also been disseminated through Ibec, the main employer group in Ireland, ensuring that the research had real impact across a range of sectors in Ireland.

The work of the Women in the Scottish Economy (WiSE) research center at Glasgow Caledonian University takes an innovative, multidisciplinary approach to gender analysis of economic and public policy both in Scotland and internationally. The group launched a report, Gender Equality Pays: The Economic Case for Addressing Women’s Labour Market Inequality, which found that closing the gender gap could boost Scotland’s economy by 17 billion GBP (nearly 22.3 billion USD).

Institutional Impact

At the University of Exeter Business School, the Academic Woman network aims to increase gender equality by raising awareness, building capacity, and supporting networking for women who are in (or aspire to be in) academia. It is a cross-discipline network open to all levels of academic women. HHL-Leipzig Graduate School of Management has a similar network called Women@hhl, which offers workshops concerning women in leadership positions and a communication platform for discussions.

La Trobe Business School has a goal to actively participate in, contribute to, and track their progress in realizing the targets set out in the university’s gender strategy, which promotes greater participation by and representation of women at all levels of the university. One of their initiatives is the Women’s Academic Promotions Support Program, designed to demystify the promotion process and provide peer support through senior mentors and mentor groups. It has resulted in an increased number of academic promotion applications received from women. Because of their ongoing work, La Trobe received a citation from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency as an Employer of Choice for Gender Equality.

Other schools are looking for formal recognition of their commitment to promoting gender equality in their institutions. Some are doing this, for example, through the Athena SWAN Charter in the United Kingdom, developed to support the advancement and promotion of the careers of women in higher education and research. Durham Business School at Durham University in England was awarded an Athena SWAN Bronze Award and is currently working toward a silver award. Cardiff Business School, another holder of an Athena SWAN Bronze Award, is also a signatory to the 50/50 by 2020 campaign in Wales, which aims to ensure that organizations and companies strive to provide gender equality and a workforce more reflective of society’s changing demographics.

Student Opportunities

Many business schools organize events specifically focused on women in business. For example, Pepperdine Graziadio Business School’s Women in Leadership Reachout Conference and the Women in Business Conference at London Business School. Kent State University has run the Spirit of Women in Business Annual Conference for nearly a decade on each year’s International Women’s Day. Although the audience is primarily women, every year this high-quality event attracts a growing number of men.

Many schools also provide additional mentoring opportunities for students. For instance, St. John's College’s Women in Leadership Programme provides mentorship and workshops to women of all majors and provides them with the opportunity to connect and network across departments to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing women transitioning from the classroom to the marketplace in the 21st century.

At the School of Business Administration at the University of San Diego, the Women Innovators Initiative aims to provide support and encourage the development of female students as social entrepreneurs and innovators. The initiative offers field experiences and dialogue addressing the challenges and opportunities faced by women creating social change through innovative initiatives, networking opportunities and alliance-building with women innovators in the community, mentorship to female students by successful community professionals, and seed funding opportunities for launching social ventures.

The impact that business schools can have in supporting women in their immediate and extended communities is significant. Learn more about International Women’s Day, coordinated by U.N. Women, as well as the Women’s Empowerment Principles, an initiative coordinated by the U.N. Global Compact and U.N. Women that offers resources to business on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace, and community.


Giselle WeybrechtGiselle Weybrecht is an author, advisor, and speaker on sustainability. Her most recent book is The Future MBA: 100 Ideas for Making Sustainability the Business of Business Education. Follow her on Twitter @gweybrecht.