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Women and Business Education: It’s About Realizing Our Full Potential

When I was a teenager one of the popular television news magazines aired a segment about women who wanted to become firefighters. Although I’ve lost track of the details, I will never forget my reaction. It was nothing short of a profound awakening.

In the segment, women candidates were shown doing physically demanding tests, such as dragging heavy hoses, breaking through barriers, and transporting injured people to safety. The show illustrates them struggling to succeed at these tests. In the foreground male firefighters emphasized how important it is to trust the capabilities of their colleagues, especially in the field. 

I remember thinking it wasn’t surprising that women were not performing well in these tests. But in my mind, it was not because they were less capable than their male counterparts. It was because firefighting was designed for men, by men. Confession, I was also reacting emotionally to what I perceived as a smug attitude amongst the male interviewees. I stayed awake that night imagining the tools, techniques and strategies that would have probably been invented if women were included from the start. It is quite likely, I concluded, that we would be much more effective at fighting fires and, probably better at preventing them. From that brief experience, I began to comprehend the vast potential that has gone unrealized due to exclusion.

It has been decades since that episode aired and a lot is different about our world today. Unfortunately, the last time I checked, only 4-6% of firefighters in the U.S. are women. More generally and globally, data suggest that progress has been slow. In 2020 (before the pandemic), women made up less than 39% of the total global labor force. It was nearly 40% a decade ago. See this World Bank chart and take a close look at India’s chart while you’re there. 

There has been some progress in business. This Grant Thorton Report shows the proportion of women in senior management globally grew from 22% in 2015 to 29% in 2020. And I’ve been excited about the increasing attention that business schools are giving to women. Many GBSN member schools have been purposeful about increasing the proportion of women in their programs, on their faculties and leadership teams, and on their boards. They’ve also made extra efforts to target women in outreach programs for the broader community, such as programs specifically for women business leaders. Thanks to my colleagues Maddie Handler and Emma Martens, a linked list of some GBSN member initiatives designed to support gender balance is included at the end of this blog.

Increasing access to leadership, management, and entrepreneurship education is helpful. But business schools must continue challenging themselves to go further.

“Achieving our full potential in society requires not only enabling women to equally participate and succeed within the current system, but also doing everything we can to change the system.”

First, we need business scholars to generate new insights to improve relevant management practices. To accomplish this, faculty must do research that is useful as well as credible. We must look forward, as well as backwards, to build new policies, processes, and practices that reduce discrimination and bias. We must think beyond business to consider societal challenges. Doing these things will not be easy, given current research models and incentive systems. Management is complicated and contextual, and it is dynamic. So academic scholars must get closer to practice to understand it better and keep up with changes.

There are many gender-related research streams that are interesting. There is the ongoing question of whether the introduction of “blind” auditions (using screens to conceal gender) contributed to a significant increase—from 6% in 1970 to 21% in 1993—in the proportion of women in top orchestras. Similar studies ask questions about whether making job applications “blind” would increase the percentage of women who make it through the first selection round. I’ve been tracking research on whether simply emphasizing the traits of excluded groups, such as women, over “prototypical” traits for some professions can have a positive impact on outcomes. Check out this promising research brief on balancing the prototypes for firefighters. 

Second, business schools must think critically about their own content and processes and whether they actually perpetuate discrimination and bias. Even when confronted by new evidence, underlying concepts and cultures can carry on for a long time without purposeful intervention. A head recruiter for a top consulting company once told me that female candidates were scoring significantly lower on the math assessment than men. Their investigation finally revealed that at several feeder schools, students did most of their work in teams. It turns out women often selected (or were pushed or influenced) into less quantitative roles. 

Business school leaders should continuously work to develop new inclusive programs and frame the management problems that scholars should address. They should also should look carefully at the school’s curricula to figure what should be modified or discontinued (rather than “cancelled”). To provide one example, GBSN is collaborating with the Women’s Economic Imperative to help pilot a promising initiative called “Gender-Smart Entrepreneurship Education & Training” (GEET+), which “can be used by instructors and trainers to assess the status of equity, diversity, and inclusion within entrepreneurship courses and programs.” We invite you to join us for a virtual roundtable on 23 March, 2021, that will showcase the multi-country project that mobilizes evidence-based insights in the development of entrepreneurship education and training as drivers of economic empowerment of girls, women and other disadvantaged groups. The GEET+ is the work of Telfer School of Management’s Professor Barbara Orser and Dr. Catherine Elliott. The tool has been selectively applied in Canada and the United States.  Led by the Women’s Economic Imperative (WEI) and funded by the International Development Research Centre (Canada), the pilot project is being launched in Peru, Mexico, Kenya, and Nigeria. 

March 8th is International Women’s Day, a day dedicated to celebrating women’s achievement and taking action for equality. This year’s theme is #ChooseToChallenge. A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change. Let’s all continue to challenge and facilitate change.

What are GBSN Members doing to challenge and facilitate change?

  • HKUST — leading institution in gender balance performance, including highest percentage of female faculty (according to the Financial Times)
  • MIT Sloan — has resource page dedicated to supporting women across MIT by offering resources, tools, communities, etc.
  • INSEAD — Delivers an online gender diversity program, as well as a publication and event page
  • University of Maryland– EMBA gender parity. 54% of the students in the 2021 cohort are women
  • HEC Paris — Hosted an executive women’s leadership program in partnership with Yale, in December of last year
  • IESE Business School — Women in the MBA program and club; provides resources such as blogs, events, and advice for women at IESE
  • Tuck — Women in business club that attends the WIBC every year
  • Nanyang Business School — MBA student recently founded the school’s first women in business club
  • Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO — offers a Women Leadership Award for female candidates who demonstrate excellent leadership track record. The aim of the award is to support female candidates of merit and to help increase the number of women participating in the Executive MBA program
  • Strathmore Business School — Launching a Women in Leadership Program to be hosted in June
  • Wits Business School — Delivers course on Gender Identity in Leadership
  • University of Stellenbosch Business School — USB nominated to host the Gender, Work, and Organization conference in 2023
  • American University of Beirut — they are part of a program called FREE: Female Academic Role Model Empowerment, Equality and Sustainability at Universities in Mediterranean Region
  • Lagos Business School— In May 2021, the school is delivering a women in leadership workshop
  • Qatar University College of Business and Economics — Offers a mentoring program for Qatari women to engage in action-oriented entrepreneurial activities
  • CENTRUM Catolica Graduate Business School — Hosting a women’s CEO Program in 2021
  • University of Otago — Provides a gender studies program for all students no matter the background and is credited to other degree programs
  • Nova School of Business and Economics — Recognized by the UN for their work with SDG #5

The Forte Foundation has recognized many GBSN member schools as exceptional programs for women: Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, GW, IE, IESE, INSEAD, MIT, Michigan State, University of Illinois, University of Maryland, University of Michigan

Dan LeClair is CEO of the Global Business School Network (GBSN). Widely recognized as a thought leader in management education, Dan is the author of over 80 research reports, articles, and blogs, and has delivered more than 170 presentations in 30 countries. As a lead spokesperson for reform and innovation in management education, Dan has been frequently cited in a wide range of US and international newspapers, magazines, and professional publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, China Daily, Forbes, Fast Company, and The Economist.