Redefining Business Education for Women

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Wednesday, December 1, 2021
By Andi Simon
Photo by iStock/Phynart Studio
How can business schools help women sustain their careers post-pandemic?

There has been no shortage of research or discussion about the impact the pandemic has had on women. Among the most concerning trends is this: Approximately 2.4 million women have left the workforce since the beginning of the crisis. Before the pandemic, women made up nearly 58 percent of the American workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. While the BLS has not yet released post-pandemic data, a March 2021 McKinsey report finds that “one in four women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers versus one in five men.”

For many of these women, the prospect of returning to the workplace presents multiple challenges. Women disproportionately bear the burden of managing household work, caring for children and, at times, caring for their parents. Even so, on top of all that, many still strive for vocational success and advancement. 

As part of my executive coaching practice, I have worked with women whose careers span many different industries. These women now find themselves questioning career paths that had seemed much clearer to them before the pandemic. They express a loss of direction and a sense of uncertainty about the future. For some, this loss of a well-defined future is more emotionally painful than any difficulties they have faced in their professional lives. 

In many cases, research doesn’t offer much solace. When experts suggest practical tactics for re-entering the workforce, they too often ignore the challenges women must overcome. For example, women are told that potential employers should ignore the pandemic gap on their résumés, and that businesses should offer them hybrid work situations so they can balance the demands of office and home. But are the pundits right?

After working with my female clients, I have my doubts. One of my clients, for example, had been happily managing her complex household while moving swiftly up the corporate ladder. It was only after the pandemic struck that she realized how much she disliked her commute and how much more productive she was working remotely.

As her firm encourages its employees to return to the office, no one is telling her that her career will falter if she continues to work from home. Even so, she worries that she will be “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to new projects or promotions, and she feels pressure to return to the office. But with this pressure has come a new awareness of what matters most to her.

For some women, the loss of a well-defined future is more emotionally painful than any difficulties they have faced in their professional lives.

This mindset could be inspiring many women to further their educations to prepare for career shifts. According to data released in November by the Graduate Management Admission Council, in 2021, 60 percent of full-time two-year MBA programs reported increases in the number of female applicants, compared to 43 percent reporting increases in the number of male applicants. In 2019, just 48 percent of these programs reported receiving more applications from women.

This trend represents an expanding opportunity for business schools to rethink their role in supporting women’s career trajectories and to explore new ways to make a difference in their lives. Below, I offer a few possibilities.

Filling the Educational Gaps

The pandemic has exposed many of students’ unmet needs. For example, women referred to me for coaching are not just coping with what I call “pandemic fatigue.” They also have realized that they want more—more from their jobs, more from their careers, more from their lives. 

I see three ways, in particular, that business schools could help women bridge the gap between where they are now and where they want to be: 

Offer certifications, badges, and multichannel training programs. Faculty could develop online seminars on a range of topics that address the multiple challenges and obligations that women are juggling today. By sharing their perspectives, these experts could help women expand their skill sets, redesign their career paths, and invest in their own growth. These seminars could follow a mastermind model, offer a digital badge or certification upon completion, or be part of a full degree program.

The need for such opportunities is very real. One woman I coach has been postponing entering an MBA program because she questions whether she can pursue her education while keeping her personal life and professional life in balance. I also have been working with several 29-year-old women who have found that, while their jobs are not at risk, their careers have stalled during the pandemic. Their vision of themselves has been shrinking. Some are bored with their current jobs but aren’t sure what they want for their future careers; others who had once viewed themselves as “high-flyers” at work are now watching new hires eclipse them. They not only have lost their passion for what they once thought were their “dream jobs,” but also lack inspiration to seek different positions or responsibilities.

At the same time, training and development discussions with their business leaders have ceased. With everyone working remotely, it’s as if no one at their organizations is focused on pursuing personal development or moving up (or even sideways) on the career ladder.

I frequently discuss the possibility of pursuing a certification or an MBA with these women. But they say that, even though many of their employers provide financial assistance for education, neither they nor their firms are aware of the local programs available. They add that providers in their markets have not communicated or partnered with their companies to offer training.

This indicates a strange gap in the market—especially at this stage of the pandemic, when more businesses might be willing to set funds aside for employee career development. How can business schools close this gap? To start, they could rethink the way they market their programs to women, while also strengthening their partnerships with local businesses and taking full advantage of the power of virtual learning.

Expand the focus on changing corporate cultures. Another group of women I am working with are taking on new roles in their organization. During the pandemic, their company’s long-tenured male president retired, and a woman took over as CEO. Her predecessor was a command-and-control type of leader, but she wants to build a more collaborative, entrepreneurial community with a greater sense of purpose. 

Changing an organization’s culture in this way is not easy, even in good times. People would much rather keep doing things the way they’ve always done them than learn new ways of getting their work done. But the pandemic has made such change essential. I have been working with members of the organization’s leadership team, both men and women, as they make this transition.

Tellingly, change in the working environment impacts the women differently than their male counterparts. Women often work through such changes quietly and without fanfare; they find it difficult to manage their teams and develop new processes. Men often become frustrated with the uncertainty change brings; they must learn how to collaborate, rather than compete, as they create their new roles in their companies.

Business schools could team up with theater programs to help both women and men understand how to shift roles, change voices, and perform the right roles at the right times.

Since the 1990s, Deborah Tannen has been researching the cultural and social dynamics between men and women, especially in how they speak and how they are heard. I see these dynamics at play in the remote programs I run for clients. If I do not manage these conversations carefully, men tend to own the floor far longer than women. Moreover, during peer-to-peer work, men often act as spokespersons while women develop the materials. This occurs even though all have similar job titles, and none report to each other.

As more companies in every industry struggle to transform their cultures, their leaders will need guidance in how to bring women and men together in collaboration. I see a need for training in three areas especially: managing corporate culture and cultural change, leading in a crisis, and attracting new hires who prefer the collaborative team model. This presents a great opportunity for business schools to offer programs for women and men alike. But women, especially, tend to embrace collaboration, making them a great fit for this new mindset.

Train women—and men—to “perform” in the hybrid workplace. In this age of remote meetings and Zoom calls, women often find it hard to speak up, especially if they’re not in regular contact with their organizations’ leadership. When speaking with their co-workers or bosses, they aren’t quite sure what words or tone of voice to use, or which conversations are the right ones to initiate. I see this play out with my clients, who comment that they have forgotten how they used to handle interactions at in-person events.

I often tell my clients that life is a stage, on which they play different roles at different times—it takes rehearsal to play these roles well. With that in mind, business schools could team up with theater programs to create a powerful methodology for helping both women and men understand how to shift roles, change voices, and perform the right roles at the right times. 

The good news is that more universities are using theater and theatrical metaphors in their programs to teach leadership and communication. Stanford University has a course called Acting with Power, which “draws on the craft of acting and the science of psychology” to teach students how to lead more effectively. And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has its program EnActing Leadership: Shakespeare and Performance, where students form their own theatrical performance company and perform Hamlet as their capstone experience. In such courses, emerging leaders learn that acting is something they do every day, not just on stage but in their lives and careers.

It's a Great Time to Offer Solutions

The ideas above are not simply new methods for offering old programs. Rather, they reflect the new needs of women coming out of this pandemic. Women are looking for ways to balance their work obligations with their family responsibilities, plan completely new career paths, navigate shifting corporate cultures, and communicate more effectively in jobs that have been transformed by remote work.

The leadership of visionary business schools can help professional women by providing innovative new programs of real value to the market at a time when these programs are greatly needed. After all, change isn’t a problem—it’s an opportunity for reinvention. And there’s truly no better time for business schools to rethink the ways they help women navigate the new world of work.

Andi Simon
Founder, Simon Associates Management Consultants
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