Building the Network for Women’s Business Success |

Building the Network for Women’s Business Success

By QS Contributor

Updated August 30, 2019 Updated August 30, 2019

Professor Katherine W. Phillips, Lauren Brom and Jennifer McCaleb

Empowering women to reach their full professional potential will create tremendous value for the global economy and society.  How can businesses and business schools unlock that potential?  Changing the trajectory of women in business is not something that women can do all on their own given the institutional constraints that can both hinder and help women’s success. Creating an even playing field will require work in every stage of a prospective businesswoman’s career, from her time as an undergraduate through the arc of her career. Business schools, like Columbia, are ideally situated to effect change, not only during women’s time at business school, but throughout their careers, by forging the needed strategic partnerships to act as the hub of a network designed to support women’s success.

Consistent with recent conversations about gender in the media – such as “Lean In” and “The Confidence Gap” – our community embarked on a significant student-led analysis to assess the school’s current performance on diversity dimensions. Are we doing everything we possibly can to support our diverse student population?  Is the environment welcoming and inclusive to all students?  How can we continue to be an exemplar organization, supporting all of our students’ efforts to succeed?

Thirty-three students, working in partnership with fifteen faculty members and administrators, spearheaded a rigorous quantitative and qualitative study of gender at Columbia Business School. Nearly 75% of the student body voluntarily joined the data gathering process by participating in a survey, and additional students offered their qualitative insights into school culture during focus groups.

Our research revealed not only some work to be done at the school, but also both pre- and post-enrollment issues that will require partnership across the educational and business sectors to affect meaningful change. Our study covered all major aspects of the MBA experience starting before matriculation.  Here are some of the key findings and implications from these self-reflections.


We strive to enroll top-quality candidates from diverse backgrounds. The number of female applicants Columbia receives is at an all-time high.  However, MBA programs today are still competing to attract a small pool of female applicants. As a group, we must do more to develop partnerships to increase the pipeline of women considering an MBA. This effort can start with the undergraduate populations that sit right across campus. Such initiatives can include partnerships with undergraduate pre-professional offices to provide students with active glimpses into the MBA landscape, developing select mentoring relationships between women MBAs and women undergraduates, and including undergraduate women as part of MBA-initiated, inclusive endeavors such as the exploration of new business ventures.


Supporting classmate learning through teamwork and a rigorous participative classroom environment are important shared values at Columbia. Our study found differences in academic achievement between men and women, with men representing a disproportionate share of the top 25% of graduating classes for the last several years.  The difference in performance was driven mainly by technical courses. It is impossible to pinpoint the exact cause of this achievement gap, but several key factors correlate with achievement, including undergraduate GPA, GMAT scores, self-reported confidence levels and previous work experience in finance or consulting.  We have no doubt that the men and women enrolled in business schools are equally capable of succeeding academically. Our goal is to make sure every student flourishes no matter where they start the journey. Moving forward, we are focused on leveling the playing field in the classroom by partnering with relevant stakeholders to bolster our pre-MBA course work and providing additional support to students that lack technical backgrounds.  The changing nature of education and technology will play a critical role in this effort. 

Career Satisfaction 

While an average of 95% of graduates reported satisfaction with their post-MBA job offer, today’s corporate ladder is increasingly becoming a “lattice” with a variety of career paths that women (and men) can choose to achieve success. Our research found that 59% of women expect to take some time off in the next 5-10 years, compared to 48% of men.  In response, we will enhance career resources by increasing emphasis on long-term career planning, expanding programming to facilitate alumni reentrance into the workforce, and increasing the on-campus presence of female senior executives. The school will also continue to partner with the employers of its students and alumni to identify better ways to manage high impact careers with time away from work over their lifetimes. Initiatives like the school’s newly formed Career Leadership Institute, set to launch formally this summer, will provide further support to all MBAs in their leadership development process and career progression. Leveraging faculty and recruiter expertise, students will be given practice opportunities to hone their skills and to reflect on longer-term career goals.  As women progress in their careers, building networks to support success and representation in corporate leadership roles will be critical.  The school, along with many of its peers, embraces opportunities to partner with organizations like the Forte Foundation on its Women on Boards initiative by identifying Board-ready alumnae and actively engaging with programming. We plan to extend these partnerships going forward.

Community and Culture

Encouragingly, students report that Columbia’s student community is dynamic and vibrant.  Students participate in social events through formal and informal channels at the school and report general satisfaction with these events. Community and culture matter here and in outside organizations. Partnering with all of our constituents – including alumni and recruiters – to help us shape the community and develop additional events and activities that bring us together is a critical step toward an environment where all can succeed.

Further strengthening the dialogue channels between women MBAs and alumnae across industries and functions, as well as providing thought leadership and partnership on the transformative power of diversity in organizations, provides business schools with an opportunity to help shape the face of the workforce.  Columbia Business School is working on opportunities to foster this dialogue through initiatives like its Diversity & Inclusion for All working group and upcoming conference. This initiative brings together leading companies to participate in dialogue with renown diversity scholars about recently emerging practices and research that will help forge connections and collaborative solutions to diversity issues at companies and in business schools.  The upcoming conference in September will feature a special workshop on Engaging Men to Advance Women which will reinforce the importance of getting the larger community involved with these issues.

Candid self-reflection is never easy.  There are many different ways to approach the challenges of gender dynamics – and all are commendable – but where Columbia's efforts are unique is in the inclusion and support of the entire community – from the students and alumni to the faculty and administration – and in our recognition that we cannot change this all on our own.  Meaningful and lasting change will require corporate and community partners.  Business schools, such as ours, act as feeders into the most influential institutions in the world, including the Fortune 500, the not-for-profit and government sectors and major global organizations. Ultimate accountability for diversity in these institutions lies within; nevertheless, we believe that, by partnering with others, business schools like ours can bring together the right network of players and leading thinkers to shape professional environments where all members, reflecting the vast diversity of the business world, can succeed and reach their full potential.

We are committed to being advocates for the changes needed throughout a woman’s career to ensure that she can reach her full professional potential.  We hope that change in our community, and others like it will support the work of serious transformation that is needed across the complex, interconnected institutions of the business world.  The Columbia Business School community is already making a difference with seasoned business leaders like Janet Hanson and Sallie Krawcheck establishing and breaking new ground with 85 Broads (now Ellevate), and alumnae like Shazi Visram, founder of Happy Family Brands.  These are powerful role models for businesswomen of the future.  We look forward to deepening that impact over the coming years with new generations of students and faculty.

Why Gender Inequality in Business School Case Studies Matters

About the authors

Katherine W. Phillips is the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics and Senior Vice Dean (as of July 1, 2014) of Columbia Business School.  Lauren Brom, Chair of CBS Reflects, and Jennifer McCaleb, President of the Columbia Women in Business, are both editors of the inaugural CBS Reflects: Gender Equality Report


This article was originally published in June 2014 . It was last updated in August 2019

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