Women in Business: Female MBAs Give Their Verdict | TopMBA.com

Women in Business: Female MBAs Give Their Verdict

By Tim Dhoul

Updated July 3, 2019 Updated July 3, 2019

Are we making progress when it comes to the representation of women in business? Should we be proud of what has already been achieved, or should the focus fall on how far away we still are from true gender equality in the workplace?

Last week, Germany became the latest European nation to introduce a quota system in a bid to raise the number of women occupying boardroom positions at its largest companies, but are legislative measures the right way to instigate change?

Business school is where the next generation of business leaders hone their skillsets before setting out to make a mark, therefore management education’s potential to effect change in the business landscape shouldn’t be underestimated.

To mark the passing of International Women’s Day on March 8, and Women’s History Month throughout March, we spoke to MBAs on both sides of the Atlantic to gauge their feelings about the position women in business currently find themselves in, at business school and in the wider world of work. (For a look at what the schools themselves have to say, step this way.)

IMD MBA and MIT Sloan offer cross-continental viewpoint

women in business - MBA's verdict
Elena Mendez is a current MBA student in MIT Sloan School of Management’s class of 2015 and has served as co-chair for the school’s women in business conference. The mother of two young children, Elena holds a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Edinburgh and worked for McKinsey & Company prior to joining MIT Sloan.

Joan Beets, meanwhile, is an IMD MBA alumna, having graduated from the Swiss school’s class of 2012. Joan was the recipient of the IMD MBA’s annual award for the best all-round female MBA student – The Welshe Family Memorial Prize – in the year of her graduation. 

Shared views detectable in opinions of MBA student and alumna

Although, Joan and Elena are three years apart in their respective MBA classes, there are some notable similarities in their views - not just in where they believe the issues hampering equality for women in business really lie, but also in their appreciation for business school’s low-risk environment: 

In your professional experience, has anything in particular struck you about the way in which men and women are perceived in the business world?

Elena Mendez (EM): What has struck me the most is how prevalent implicit biases still are among the younger generation, sometimes even more than among older ones.

I think there is an interesting effect occurring where our college experience has been quite equitable compared to how it was for our parents’ generation (more women than men have been earning BSc degrees in the US since the early 1980s), and we have lost sight of the fact that there is still a lot of work to do in terms of equal opportunities for many underrepresented groups, not just women.

This feeling of having ‘fixed’ the problem prevents individuals as well as institutions from taking proactive steps to address inequality issues. As a result, the implicit biases that we all have prevail and put women (as well as other groups) at a disadvantage in both hiring and promotion processes, which results in the ‘leaky pipeline’ effect.

We may have reached equality in most fields at the undergraduate level, but as we climb up the professional ladder, there are fewer and fewer women in leadership positions and those numbers have been stagnant for decades.

Joan Beets (JB): I think that we have made great strides over the past years in the developed countries to improve the position of women at work and I know that, on a conscious level, it is clear to all that women perform just as well as men.

Where I still see a vast area for improvement is in the way we evaluate performance of both genders - here we are still too much driven by our unconscious biases.

As a woman, if I display what are typically perceived as positive ‘male’ competencies, such as assertiveness and strong self-belief, it more often works against me than for me. Subconsciously people (men and women!) still expect women to be soft spoken and nurturing, and therefore judge the opposite behavior as negative. The same goes for men though; those who display what are construed as feminine traits can be perceived as weak or ineffective, which is an equally unfair characterization.

I think we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to removing gender labels from what constitutes good performance. Lastly, if we truly want to increase the number of women in the workforce and have real equality, we need to grant the same support during child rearing years to men as we do to women in terms of leave etc., as is already done in the Nordics for example. Otherwise the responsibility of childcare will always be borne by women, and men will be denied the opportunity to take on part of this role.      

What inspired you to want to undertake an MBA degree?

JB: On the professional side, I had been working for a number of years as an HR business partner and had been steadily progressing in my career. I knew, however, that if I was to make my next step up I needed to have a better understanding of business in general. To be a true HR business partner you need to be able to speak the language of finance, strategy etc. with your internal customers and this is one area I felt that we often fall short in, in HR.

EM: The opportunity to dedicate two full years of my life to build specific skills and explore avenues that I would not have had the time to build or explore while on a full-time job. An MBA Program is a very stimulating and challenging environment, where an incredible amount of resources are at your fingertips, and where there is almost nothing that can go terribly wrong.

Do you find the learning atmosphere at business school to be supportive of female students? Is there anything you’d like to see your school do more of?

EM: Yes. I think that business schools have been doing a lot of work to increase the number of female students in their programs, which contributes to creating a very supportive atmosphere.

Women in business - female MBA's verdict
There are two things I’d like to see all business schools doing more of: Firstly, more implicit bias training at the institutional level. In particular, training business school professors to be aware of their own biases and avoid their unintended consequences could have a huge impact in improving the experience for women in these programs, as well as the opportunities they get through mentorship and coaching relationships.

A lot of the outcomes and benefits in business schools are determined by one-to-one interactions that are very prone to be impacted by implicit bias.

For example, a significant portion of your grade is based on class participation, and a lot of opportunities arise from relationships built with professors, alumni and other school affiliates. Throughout all these relationships, women and other groups will be disadvantaged if the person on the other side of it is unaware of their biases.

MIT, through the creation of an Institute Community and Equity Officer (ICEO), and MIT Sloan with the ‘Breaking the Mold’ initiative are doing a lot of work in this direction which I believe is already having an impact on current students and will be hugely beneficial to future students.

(Note: Breaking the Mold is an MIT Sloan initiative, of which Elena is a co-director that aims to tackle the problems associated with unconscious bias.)

The second thing I’d like to see them doing more of is providing more support to those sectors where women are still particularly underrepresented, such as in entrepreneurship and especially with reference to interaction with VC [venture capital] and PE [private equity] firms.

JB: I can only speak about IMD, but yes, I felt it was very supportive. IMD is known for its heavy emphasis on leadership and personal development and a large part of those sessions were geared at diversity topics, including gender. We have a small class size at IMD and one of the benefits of this is that you create a close-knit community where such topics can be discussed in a very open and respectful manner, which we did and they were some of the most interesting and enlightening discussions of the year!

What single piece of advice would you offer to a prospective female MBA student?    

JB: The same advice I would offer a prospective male MBA student – if you have the opportunity and the means to do an MBA then do it, but only if you are willing to learn about yourself as much as you are about business, otherwise you will never get the most out of your MBA.

Dive in head first and leave the world as you know it behind for a year. Make the most of the year and use the safety net and resources the school offers you to focus on yourself, experiment, learn and experience new things - you rarely get such an opportunity in life.

EM: Lean In! Business school is full of (often unexpected) opportunities and it is an unusually low risk environment. Go after an idea that excites you, launch a project that you would not have pursued elsewhere, get involved with a club or activity that interests you. In other words: dream big and go for it! Some of these endeavors will fail or fade away, but others will surprise you in how far they can take you. 

This article was originally published in March 2015 . It was last updated in July 2019

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Written by

Tim is a writer with a background in consumer journalism and charity communications. He trained as a journalist in the UK and holds degrees in history (BA) and Latin American studies (MA).


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