Dare to Be First: Women Leadership in Business Education

Dare to Be First: Women Leadership in Business Education

What does it take to be successful as a female dean? Former dean and current AACSB chief accreditation officer, Stephanie Bryant, offers three pieces of advice.

Your Honor, out of all the cases you're going to hear today, which one will matter 100 years from now? Which one will make you the first?
—Mary Jackson, first black female engineer at NASA

This line from one of my favorite movies, Hidden Figures, came to mind as I thought about today being International Women’s Day. I thought about all the women who have been first in some way, what it cost them to be first, and what it took to be successful. And it made me think especially about women who run business schools—a uniquely challenging environment.

As a woman administrator for many years in the U.S. business school environment—first as director of a school of accountancy, and later as dean of a large public institution—I found leadership as a woman administrator for over a decade in the business school environment a challenging experience. There were many days I felt the weight of the gender difference and many days I wondered if the loneliness that accompanied those positions was worth it. Ultimately I decided, yes, it was. If you want to change the world, or even your immediate environment, you first have to have a seat at the table.

I offer my perspective from a U.S.-centric position. While women have long held positions of power in business schools across the world, in U.S. business schools it has taken women a long time to gain representation among higher administration. When I became the first woman business school dean at Missouri State University in 2011, only 18 percent of business school deans were women. In 2016–17, that percentage had grown to 22.3 percent, as reported by 461 schools providing data for both years in the AACSB International Salary Survey. Also in 2016–17, 30 percent of university presidents were women, according to the American Council on Education’s American College President Study 2017, while at AACSB member schools, 42 percent of all newly hired doctorates in business were women, up from just 36 percent in 2010–11. Women are definitely making progress.

So what does it take to be successful as a female dean? I offer three pieces of advice to any woman, in any part of the world, who is considering a move to a leadership position in a business school.

First, seek a mentor—someone who has walked in those shoes and can help you understand what the challenges will be. And yes, there are unique challenges, particularly for two-career couples and those raising younger children. A mentor can help you think through options for managing seemingly unrelenting demands of a high-profile university position and other roles you may simultaneously fulfill.

Second, study and understand everything about your job, from taking an interest in the faculty personally to budgets to fundraising to curriculum. Develop relationships with the others who are entrusted with running the university. There is no substitute for simply being knowledgeable, competent, and trustworthy. Be good at your job, and the work will speak for itself.

Last, finding balance in your life is a must. Running a business school can consume all of your time, energy, and enthusiasm, leaving little left over for other parts of your life. I admire PwC’s “Be Well, Work Well” program, which reasons that if you don’t focus on health and wellness in yourself, you cannot effectively lead others. You will not feel you have time—but must make time—for leisure, family, reading, hobbies, and mental and spiritual rejuvenation.

Being first can be daunting and lonely, but the rewards are great. Cultivate a mentor, be great at your job, and find a way to balance your personal and professional life. Dare to be first. In my opinion, having a seat at the table and an opportunity to effect change from within makes it all worthwhile.

Stephanie BryantFollow Stephanie Bryant on Twitter @StephMBryant.