Women in Business: B-School Q&As | TopMBA.com

Women in Business: B-School Q&As

By Pavel Kantorek

Updated June 25, 2019 Updated June 25, 2019

When it comes to women in business, gender inequality is very much a reality – both in the boardroom and at the schools at which future board members are trained (see our slideshow on this). Among the top 200 schools in the world, according to actively hiring MBA employers and academics in the field of business & management, women account for around a third of MBA candidates.

This is only the middle step on a downward curve. In the US, for instance, 60% of university graduates are female. In the UK, the latest available figures show that 56% of those enrolled at universities are female. By the time we get to elite level boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies though, the figure has dropped dramatically, to 4.8%.

Are we seeing things change for women in business? QS applicant research discovered last year that prospective female MBA applicants outnumbered male in the US & Canada (and here’s our interview with the Forté Foundation’s Elissa Ellis Sangster on that issue), as they have in Eastern Europe for a little while now. How long this takes to translate to business schools, let alone boardrooms, however, remains to be seen. Germany has passed a law stipulating that the percentage of women on non-executive boards should be at least 30%. A positive step, but nonetheless a step which reinforces the impression that the issue is so ingrained in business culture that legislative measures are necessary.

Some reassurance can be found in the fact that at some schools, we see something closer to parity. We thought we’d speak to some of the schools that have been able to boast strong female representation in their MBA cohorts to see how far they thought we’d actually managed to get…

Below you can find responses from:

Pascale Berthier, affiliate professor and deputy director MBA program, EMLYON

Arkadiusz Mironko, executive director of graduate programs at the A. Gary Anderson Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Riverside.

Jeff Nehajowich, director of recruitment and admissions, Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University.

Professor Nicolas Forsans, director of the One Planet MBA, Exeter

What challenges do women face in the workplace and at business school in 2015 – are things getting better fast enough?

AM: More and more women aspire to management positions. We at many business schools, including here at the Anderson Graduate School of Management, offer them the support to achieve those goals. Presently, women in the workplace are better educated than they have ever been. And generally the wage gap between male and female earnings is converging.

NF: The challenges that women face in the workplace vary across cultures and regions, and include not being treated equally in the workplace, unequal pay, sexual harassment and poor personal security – the latter being more common in some emerging economies. In Europe, the main issues are those of career progression, promotion and compensation, in particular as a result of career breaks, often taken to bring up children. For example, the percentage of women decreases dramatically in the higher ranks of organisations. There is a lack of female role models at the very top of businesses and this makes it more difficult for women to make the leap from senior managers to the boardroom. The phenomenon known as the glass cliff was discovered in 2004 by Professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam here at the University of Exeter, in which women executives in the corporate world are likelier than men to be put in leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest. It has been extensively documented and studied since then. However, things are getting better for women, although never fast enough.

Do business schools do enough to address imbalance, both in the MBA classroom and the workplace? Is there support on offer to women who might find they still face prejudice in the workplace and business school?    

PB: The percentage of women in our International MBA varies from one year to another (60% in 2013/2014, 36 % in 2014/2015). We have implemented a scholarship for executive women and aim to encourage female candidates. We do not observe prejudice towards our female candidates, as it is part of the diversity of the cohort, together with the number of nationalities.

AM: More and more women are applying to business schools, including here at the Anderson Graduate School of Management. For example, in 2013, 50% of our MBA applicants were female. In 2014, that increased to 55%. We try to create an environment for men and women without differentiation. We give men and women equal skill sets so they can bring the same value to the workplace.

JN: I can’t comment on what other business schools are doing, or are not doing, but I can tell you that our full-time MBA last year had a class of 52%­ women­ – more than 15% higher than the average for AACSB-accredited business schools.  Over the past five years, we have been ahead of the average with at least 40% of the class being women each year. We have addressed a typical imbalance in an MBA classroom through a series of initiatives.

In 2009, we established the Nancy McKinstry Awards for Leadership in Diversity, a US$2,500 annual award recognizing a Beedie graduate who’s been a trailblazer in promoting opportunities for women in business.

In 2011, MBA students Alannah Cervenko and Alice Longhurst founded the Graduate Women’s Business Council. The student-run program supports young women as their strides lead them to roles as future leaders, managers and entrepreneurs.

Beedie’s MBA program also supports women-helping-women with its high profile education partner, the Women’s Executive Network. The mentoring program matches high-performing students with mentors from the prestigious WXN Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Award Winners.

NF: Business schools can sometimes have a very ‘macho’ culture which may exist at both an undergraduate level and within MBA programs alike. At Exeter our emphasis has been on providing our students with a business education that emphasises the values of inclusiveness and mutual respect through an MBA that has, at its core, the principles of responsible management and transformative leadership. Last year, and unlike almost most other MBA programs, our One Planet MBA had more women students than men – so it’s very female friendly! 

One often hears references to the importance of 'feminine' qualities in business - is there something in this or is it somewhat reductive to suggest that women bring a different set of skills/qualities?  Might it be better to separate qualities from gender or are we still at a stage where we need to think about things in these terms?

PB: What we see is that the new generation is aware of stereotypes concerning gender and they prefer to consider complementarities in terms of team roles (a sociological approach) and what each individual brings to the team rather than referring to ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ qualities.

AM: There are definitely differences between men and women. For example, studies have shown women are more calculated risk takers, which in turn can lead to better decision making, especially in the long term.

NF: I find the use of the term ‘feminine qualities’ in business to be utter nonsense. I am also unsure as to what these supposed ‘feminine qualities’ actually are... Intuition? Sensibility? An ability to care for others? Men, in business and outside of it can and will evidence sensitivity, intuition and care.  We would all be better off if qualities were separated from any gender consideration – in business - as in real life - there are caring, sensitive and altruistic individuals of both sexes. And there are individualistic, insensitive and opportunist ones.


This article was originally published in May 2016 . It was last updated in June 2019

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Written by

Mansoor is a contributor to and former editor of TopMBA.com. He is a higher and business education specialist, who has been published in media outlets around the world. He studied English literature at BA and MA level and has a background in consumer journalism.


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