Business has gone to lengths to close the gender gap but at both business schools and companies women are not winning the gender battle.
MBA cohorts remain 70% male on average and the meter has barely moved for a decade. The traditional career choices – consulting, finance and banking – are male dominated. This includes the technology sector. Surveys show female MBA students are both reluctant to enter tech companies and more likely to leave.
Swetha Kola is part of the minority, but as a former product quality associate at Google and now an MBA student, she banishes two common stereotypes: that women don’t opt for tech careers and that MBA degrees are geared towards men.
She wants to inspire women to aspire to leadership positions. By building a network of classmates and alumni, she believes her business school community can support one another and be a source of strength both throughout their careers and personal lives.
A large portion of the female MBA students at Sauder’s Robert H Lee Graduate School in Vancouver, Canada, are members of Swetha’s Women in Business club.
They illustrate that women are finding a value in connecting with one another and that business schools are increasingly upping their efforts to tackle diversity in the classroom.
“A lot of work is to be done,” says Swetha. She singles out companies which create policies to provide flexibility to employees who have families as a step in the right direction.
But the gender debate needs attention from the grassroots level – in both academia and professional spheres, she says. “We are also hoping to reach out to younger women aspiring to careers in business to make them more comfortable with the notion of leadership.”
Like Sauder, many institutions in Europe have similar club and network strategies which are crucial in driving the gender debate and combating the lack of diversity in business.
“Business schools play an instrumental role in addressing the gender imbalance in the corporate world,” says Philippe Oster, admissions director at HEC Paris, a leading French business school.
“Women’s clubs are extremely important in promoting gender diversity,” he says. They give female students the chance to both affect change and encourage male students to get involved in the conversation.
HEC Paris’ Women In Leadership Club aims to make it easier for female participants to grow, network and collaborate to reach the top of their fields.
This is particularly a problem in technical sectors, where in the UK for instance men account for 88% of all tech jobs, according to the Office for National Statistics.
The French network seeks to connect MBAs to industry-specific figures, who are often alumni of the business school.
But although there is an appetite for it, networking alone is not enough, according to Ginny Gibson, deputy dean of Henley Business School in the UK.
“If these groups are to [be] successful, they need to do more than bring people together – they need to add real value,” she says.
Ginny believes business schools can do more by championing their academic research into women’s leadership.
“In order to make real change, there is a need for high quality evidence – and business schools can play an important part in providing a rigorous and unbiased view,” she adds.
Leveraging your network is nothing new to MBA students but by bringing prominent speakers into the classroom HEC Paris believes it can inspire, support and empower students to aim higher.
“A lack of female role models may discourage prospective female students from applying to business schools – for fear of not being accepted or of encountering difficulties in the ensuing job search,” says Philippe.
This fear is fostered by the frustrating pay gap between men and women. A survey of 4,000 MBA graduates by Catalyst, a women’s advocacy group, found women were paid $4,600 less in their first jobs. A study by Yale University sent employers exactly the same CV for hundreds of entry-level jobs in the scientific academic community. It found those labelled “Jennifer” attracted an average starting salary almost $4,000 less than those marked “John”.
“Not only may it discourage women from applying in the first place [but] it may prevent it altogether as women may have not have the financial means to take time out of work to study,” adds Philippe.
To attack the problem at its roots, some business schools run events to attract potential female MBA applicants.
Henley, for instance, recently held a Women in Leadership Forum that attracted 180 mostly female delegates, including prominent speakers such as Sue Clayton, executive director of capital markets at property advisers CBRE, and Sue Bence, head of M&A at Slater & Gordon Lawyers, the world’s first listed law firm.
The benefits to students are clear: according to Forté Foundation, a women’s advocacy consortium of leading companies and business schools, women see pay gains equal to 55-65% of their pre-MBA salary within five years of graduation.
Such efforts are bearing fruit for Henley. Its full-time MBA has close to 50% women in each cohort, according to Ginny, while the executive MBA has approximately 40% women.
It is a similar story at CEIBS in Shanghai, a business school with a female ratio of more than 40%, according to assistant director Roy Chason.
He says childcare is less of a burden in China – parents are limited to one child per family – which makes it easier for women to pursue careers. “We normally have several students every year who have their child right before or even during the full-time MBA.”
Most MBA students are between 25 and 35, which is often the age range in which women bear children.
“This means women face added constraints when it comes to the time and the finances they are able to sacrifice in order to study,” says Philippe at HEC Paris.
But digital disruption in business education is making distance learning a more viable option. Many top ranking business schools run online and part-time MBA programs.
“The flexible duration of the MBA makes it easier for all applicants to adapt the MBA to their needs,” says Gloria Batllori, executive director of ESADE Business School’s MBA.
Competition among MBA programs remains intense for top female candidates and ESADE has redesigned its MBA to focus on diversity and integrated teamwork.
“One of our goals as a business school community should be to debunk the myth that management education… Is primarily for men looking to further their careers,” says Keegan Pierce, associate director of admissions at ESADE, based in Spain.
Yet the bottom-up approach is not the only way to encourage change, and the responsibility should not be solely placed on the shoulders of business schools.
Bernard Garrette, dean of the HEC Paris MBA, says: “If women with MBAs achieve the same seniority and compensation as men, we may see them enter business programs in greater numbers.” Women’s enrolment at HEC Paris has increased from 25% to 36% in the past year. The school is aiming for gender parity within the next ten years.
The 30% Club, a UK organization which campaigns to get 30% female representation on all corporate boards, says it is working backwards from the boardroom, shifting its focus to more women in middle management – a level in which MBAs will typically enter.
Other regions have gone further. In 2006, Norway passed a mandatory law requiring 40% representation of each gender on the boards of listed companies.
Since then Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, Iceland and the Netherlands have all passed similar legislation. Germany recently passed a law requiring corporate boards to be comprised of 30% women by 2016.
For Swetha, it is something of a shared burden. She believes business school research is a positive step forward in the gender debate but there are many more factors at play.
“However,” she says. “The good news is that most of those factors can be overcome with effort.”