Increasing Female Role Models in Business Education

Article Icon Article
Friday, March 25, 2016
By Giselle Weybrecht
Business schools play a key role in enabling businesses to reach diversity targets by identifying, admitting, and preparing the next generation of female business leaders.

Increasingly, businesses around the world are recognizing that having women in business at all levels makes good business sense, and are taking active steps to make careers for women more attractive. Study after study unsurprisingly reinforces this idea; higher female board representation results in better financial and organizational performance. But unfortunately, numbers of women holding leadership positions are still low.

Business schools play a key role in enabling these businesses to reach their diversity targets by identifying, admitting, and preparing the next generation of female business leaders. Many schools are putting in place a growing number of programs specially tailored to attract high-potential women: scholarships, clubs, mentors, and even special courses geared specifically toward developing these leaders. Today the percentage of women in MBA programs—still the benchmark of education for executive career-seekers—varies quite significantly but hovers between 25 and 35 percent, according to the Financial Times top 100. While some schools have as few as 13 percent, others are now past 50 percent. While progress is very slowly being made, there is still a long way to go.

"What happens during the business degree, what is taught, and who teaches it all send strong messages to students, both male and female."

Bringing about gender equality in the business sector needs more than just an increase in the number of women attending business schools. These schools play another, perhaps more important, role. What happens during the business degree, what is taught, and who teaches it all send strong messages to students, both male and female, about the role women do and can play in business and in particular in leadership positions. When not only the student body but faculty, case study subjects, text books authors, guest speakers, and more generally the role models that students look up to and are influenced by are mostly male, it becomes harder to see what a more equal workplace could look like. Perhaps if we want to see change happen in the business sector, it first needs to happen within the business programs themselves. Beyond aiming for parity in enrollment, we need more parity in the role models presented within the MBA itself.

Sending Consistent Messages

Everything that happens during the MBA sends strong signals to students about the role of women in business. Although efforts to increase the number of female students are numerous and important, some also contribute to the overall problem. Between quotas and scholarships, there is an increasing view from male counterparts that it is easier for women to gain admission than men (one survey found that more than 34 percent of business school applicants believed that admissions processes are less rigorous for women than for men). Of course, this is perception rather than reality, yet although men and women both enter and complete the MBA as equals, they don’t exit it that way. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, women and men may start their post-MBA careers with similar salaries (98,000 USD for women and 105,000 USD for men for those who graduated from 2007 through 2009), but the gap widens sharply after that, and by 2014 men were making a median of 175,000 USD and women 140,000 USD.

Female Role Models in the Business Sector

Further reinforcing the gender imbalance is the lack of female role models from outside the business school who are discussed and brought into the business school environment as guest speakers and mentors. Women still hold only 4.4 percent of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies, and although they make up almost 50 percent of the employees at these companies, they hold only 14 percent of senior executive and 17 percent of board member spots according to the Forte Foundation. But companies with female CEOs generate 7 percent of the Fortune 1000’s total revenue and generally outperform the S&P 500 index during the course of their respective tenures.

Although the numbers are low, there is an increasing amount of women business leaders to look up to—leaders who have themselves completed MBAs, such as MBA graduate Gail Kelly, former CEO of Westpac, who set a target to have women occupy 40 percent of the top 4,000 managerial positions at Westpac, a target that was achieved in 2012. As impressive as this is, the challenge is that we just don’t hear very much about them in the classroom, especially compared to what we hear and learn about their male counterparts, and when we do the stories often relate to work/life balance. Many women don’t think about pursuing or applying to business school in the first place because of this lack of female role models in the wider business community.

Female Role Models Within the Business School

These statistics are also echoed in business education, where, despite some progress over the past 10 years, the numbers have not shifted significantly. During the 2014–15 school year, 19.9 percent of business school deans were women, according to AACSB. The top schools in terms of female faculty were the University of California, Irvine at 46 percent and the University of San Diego School of Business Administration at 43 percent, but otherwise all the schools in the top 10 were under 30 percent and many as low as 15 percent, according to the Financial Times. AACSB also found that although 31.2 percent of full-time faculty were women in the U.S., only 20.2 percent were actually professors, and while there has been an increase of 43.2 percent in the number of female Instructors since 2006–07, this growth has been outpaced by an increase of 58.4 percent in the number of male instructors in the same time frame.

In 2013–14, 38.1 percent of business doctoral students were women (effectively flat compared to 37.9 percent 10 years ago), according to AACSB. It’s a similar story for female board members at the business schools themselves. The University of Oxford in the U.K. and Grenoble Ecole de Management in France lead the way with 57 percent and 56 percent respectively; however, most of the top 10 business schools on the Financial Times ranking are under 20 percent. Students are just not exposed to many female leaders within the business school themselves.

Compounding this is the content of the courses. Last year Harvard Business School (which contributes 80 percent of the world’s supply of business cases) noted that only 9 percent of its case studies focused on a female leader. Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria pledged to double the number of business case studies that feature a woman as the protagonist up to a level of 20 percent over the next five years.

And more schools are looking to take a lead in this area. For example, the Independent Woman Directors Project at Sabanci University in Turkey aims to help publicly listed companies in Turkey engage women as independent board members (to 23 percent by the year 2023). The project maintains a database for tracking corporate inclusion of women on boards as well as an inventory of nearly 300 board-ready women. The school also coordinates the Women Empowered Board Index, releases a yearly Report on Woman Directors in Publicly-Traded Companies in Turkey and gives out the “Boards Empowered by Women” Awards at their yearly Independent Woman Directors Conference of Turkey. Sabanci’s faculty is made up of 43 percent women.

By putting an emphasis on promoting more female role models within the MBA program, business schools can play a key role in showing the next generation what a workforce with diverse leadership can look like.

Giselle WeybrechtGiselle Weybrecht is an author, advisor, and speaker in the areas of sustainability and business. Her bestselling book, The Sustainable MBA: A Business Guide to Sustainability, brings together all the pieces of the business and sustainability puzzle in an easy-to-understand format. Weybrecht presented a TEDx Talk, "How to Make Anything More Sustainable." She is on Twitter @gweybrecht.

Giselle Weybrecht
Author, Advisor, and Speaker, Sustainability and Business
Subscribe to LINK, AACSB's weekly newsletter!
AACSB LINK—Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge—is an email newsletter that brings members and subscribers the newest, most relevant information in global business education.