Women in leadership: How I’m contributing to making our business school more diverse | TopMBA.com

Women in leadership: How I’m contributing to making our business school more diverse

By Niamh Ollerton

Updated Updated

Leila Guerra says, "We have put diversity at the forefront of our strategy to ensure staff and students can benefit from being part of a more diverse-aware organisation. Gender equity has been a key pillar of the school’s strategy since 2014."

Imperial has long been a pioneer in championing diversity, currently holding a bronze award from the Athena SWAN Charter for transforming gender equality within higher education.

There are also a number of clubs, organisations and initiatives at Imperial promoting women in business:

  • Imperial Women’s Network set up by business school alumni
  • Women in Business Club
  • Imperial MBA Women group
  • Elsie Fellowships
  • Member of the Forté Fellows Programme, 30% Club, Bright and others
  • Provision of over £1m in scholarship funding to talented female applicants 

Imperial ensures student clubs have leaders that represent the global community – overall, Imperial boasts 50 percent gender balance on its programmes, which is reflected in the clubs.

One initiative that really shines is WE Innovate – Imperial’s female entrepreneurship education programme designed to support the next generation of women entrepreneurs accelerate their start-ups.

The six-month programme supports female students developing an early-stage business idea, to advance their leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

And students continue to break through glass ceilings with eight of Imperial’s students having been chosen as mentees on the Women@Dior mentorship programme.

The business school won the Best Best Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Initiative at the AMBA & BGA Excellence Awards for launching the year-long EDI course for students ‘Working in Diverse Organisations’.

The course offers the latest EDI learnings, training on unconscious bias, cross-cultural awareness, racial awareness, active bystander and toolkits to enable students to be more diverse-aware employees and leaders.

Leila guerra speaking

Leila Guerra (pictured) has held the position of Vice Dean of Programmes at Imperial College Business School since 15 March 2018. She said: “All students have to take the course and it sets the scene from the beginning.

“I think that's a very important initiative for us because it ensures not just diversity from a broader concept, but also female representation, making sure that it's a broader perspective.”

Guerra added: “We have put diversity at the forefront of our strategy to ensure staff and students can benefit from being part of a more diverse-aware organisation. Gender equity has been a key pillar of the school’s strategy since 2014. 

“But we are at the beginning of a journey and recognise there is still plenty for us to learn and implement.”   

Guerra says over the last 12 to 18 months, the business school has started to form where it wants to go and what it wants to achieve, both in the actions taken but also the things they aren’t going to accept any more in a bolder way.

A male dominated field

Guerra is a trained lawyer, and specialised in international relations before she moved into Higher Education.

She said: “You had a double problem there because I was female, and I was young. Now, in hindsight, and even in the academic environment, in my kind of role there aren’t many women.”

Guerra admits you don’t think about it in your day-to-day work, but when you’re confronted with situations you have time to reflect, for example, ‘Would I be in this situation if I were a man?’

She said: “That’s how you make yourself understand how you can achieve change and create awareness about why this is wrong.

“It’s helped me at least. But I’m so passionate about what I do so I think not to let obstacles slow me down, I'm just going to keep going.”

Guerra says to succeed in a male-dominated field you should stay committed, remain ambitious and stay focused on your goal. She said: “But also understand you can contribute to making that environment, richer or broader, not just working to your own objectives, but also changing, or I like to think you’re opening the pathway for whoever's coming behind you.”

Guerra believes it’s a change in rhetoric society needs to make the world more aware of the changes to ‘gender norms’ and to challenge archaic ways of thinking. But she says it took her a while to understand you can’t change everyone’s mind – still attending events where people presume her husband is the vice dean.

Ensuring women are represented

Reimagine Education Award

Guerra says that providing role models and clear opportunities for female students and faculty to find their voice and use it is of key importance.

She said: “Our priority is to increase the number of female faculty within the school. The school has grown considerably over the last five years, but while we have seen growth in overall faculty numbers, our percentage of female faculty is not where we want it to be.

“This an issue across the sector but we need to do more to attract talented female faculty to join us and we have a working group and action plan to address this. The aim is to focus on younger women, to promote academic careers with women and showcase the ambition, drive and impact.”

Guerra says Imperial is making female role models visible throughout the schools network, including Women at Imperial Portraits.

Similarly, there is the Speaker’s Series diversity pledge; a promise to provide supportive family-friendly, flexible environments for staff; unconscious bias and active bystander training for staff; mentoring scheme available to staff to aid retention.

And finally, Imperial celebrates inclusivity through the creation of an annual teaching excellence award for inclusive teaching and a Dean’s Community Award for students for Inclusive Business. 

Guerra says the business school is undertaking pay gap analysis to assess any differentials between male and female staff. She said: “We've done a lot of work on promotion and how quickly our female staff, both academic and non-academic, are progressing compared to their male colleagues.”

But she admits it’s also about having a conversation with yourself and self-awareness, ‘Are you progressing adequately? Are you putting yourself out there? And if not, why are you not doing that?’

She said: “I'm saying no to things, making a stand, which should come from everybody not just women.

“We are working on a new speaker series for our students and we're making a pledge that it is going to be diverse in all kinds of ways, not just gender.

“My male colleagues are saying no to panels with no diversity. If I get invited to a panel, I already bring some diversity, but it's them saying ‘if there's not a woman, if there’s no true diversity, I'm not going to participate in that panel, and you need to do better.’”

Role models

Guerra admits the work Imperial is doing is only the beginning. Not every student joining the school has the same level of understanding or acceptance of what cross cultural diversity and awareness means. Imperial therefore wants to provide a safe space for students and faculty to ask questions and learn from each other.

Over the past 12 months, Guerra says Imperial has done a lot of work with associates to empower female students.

Not only does the business school offer a large scholarship fund just for female students, but Imperial has also drafted a number of alumni to mentor students and become role models.

She said: “And we've introduced a career workshop ‘How to Negotiate Your Salary.’

“More female than male students were reaching out saying, ‘I don't know how to negotiate my salary or job conditions, and I'm more inclined to say yes when I'm asked something.’”

Guerra also says alumni reach out saying navigating management roles can be difficult, as although they have the theoretical frameworks to talk about the big things, when it comes to navigating management roles, speaking to bosses about recruiting more women can be a challenge, as we don’t realise those biases are in place.

She said: “That was an important wake up call for us. It's not just about the academic frameworks and operational career workshops – it's simpler than that. How can you achieve a change? Who can help you realise how to go about it?”

Imperial has utilised its alumni network pairing students with alumni merely a few steps ahead of them in their career – in a similar industry and market – to ask them how they did it.

Guerra said: “Students learn directly, and implement it straightaway by speaking to people who are like-minded but also not that far away. It’s proving to be quite successful.”

Getting your seat at the table

Finding your own voice, understanding who you are and being OK with that are two very important elements to success according to Guerra.

She said: “When I first came to the UK, I was in business school, and I tried to adapt myself to what I felt in my head they wanted from me - the way I should act as a woman in a leadership role. But a friend of mine said, ‘You know they hired you for who you are, so you should be yourself, they don't want you to be someone else, they want you to be you.’”

It’s about finding your own voice, what’s your contribution worth, what is it you’re bringing? Because whatever it is, that’s absolutely fine. Guerra said: “It will feel better because you're wearing your own clothes, you’re not wearing you know someone else's thing that that doesn't really fit – and by doing so, I think your voice becomes more powerful.”

Sign up to attend the global QS Women in Leadership Event on 7 December. This event highlights the career benefits for women who want to pursue an MBA or business master’s degree. As both at the top of the business world and in business schools women are still in the minority, our aim is to empower female candidates to connect with leading institutions and learn more about their career opportunities via postgraduate education.  

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