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    Improving female inclusion in business education

    Amy Major longs for a day when there wouldn’t be a need to report a board’s gender diversity. As the MBA programme director at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, she believes business schools need to reach parity so that the future ‘homes’ of power, governments and company boards, will have everyone at the table.

    Women’s MBA enrolment in the US hit a historic rate of 42 percent last year, according to new research from the Forté Foundation. Several US business schools achieved a gender balance in their MBA cohorts, and this is growing year-on-year.

    Female representation is also growing in business leadership positions around the world, with women now occupying 42 percent of the board seats at big UK firms. However, of the FTSE 100 CEOs, just 10 are women.

    Equality is beneficial to everyone

    Across numerous studies, gender parity has been found to increase corporate success. It allows for enhanced decision-making, increased innovation and provides better financial outcomes. By embracing diverse perspectives in the boardroom, a company is strengthened. At a macro level, nations with gender parity in leading roles tend to be more competitive on the global stage.

    Making the professional world more inclusive starts with higher education. Business schools can encourage this diversity by being an arena for dialogue, learning and a source of inspiration, explains Karen Spens, President of BI Norwegian Business School.

    “Business schools are in a unique position to impact decision-making both in business and politics through cutting-edge research, knowledge sharing and educating future leaders,” she says.

    Over the past few years, business schools like BI have launched initiatives to encourage gender parity in their programmes. As a result, BI has seen a significant increase in the number of female applicants: female full-time students currently stand at 47 percent and 64 percent for executive courses – significantly above average.

    Problems facing female MBA candidates

    Finding a solution to a complex problem first requires understanding the problem. Leila Guerra, Vice Dean at Imperial College Business School, has first-hand experience of the challenges faced by women in business.

    “As with many other leaders, I’ve experienced my fair share of unfortunate, personal and professional experiences that were influenced or shaped by my gender, language or nationality. Situations that make you aware of the change that is needed,” she says.

    “As a person, I believe change needs to start with you and those around you. As a lawyer, I’ve always felt compelled to call these situations out and ensure actions are taken.”

    In her current role, Guerra has played a significant part in shaping Imperial College Business School’s approach. Female applications to the school’s full-time MBA have been steady at around 40 percent for the past eight years. This is helped by the steps Imperial has taken to address the barriers women face while studying for their MBA.

    However, the path to equality is a long road – one that Guerra views as a marathon that requires commitment, drive and energy.

    ‘Women face familial trade-offs more directly’

    Family obligations are a common restriction. While MBA programmes require years of work experience, pursuing one is a choice that arises at a point in life when women may have other aspirations, says Isabelle Huault, Executive President and Dean of emlyon business school, in Lyon, France.

    “It’s also true that women often face these tradeoffs more directly,” adds Delphine Manceau, Dean of NEOMA Business School. “Combining a successful professional life with family quality time and new study commitments to an MBA programme adds a new challenge to an already busy period in life.”

    For all genders, leadership should be compatible with having a fulfilling personal and family life, says Manceau. NEOMA believes that being a committed and inspiring leader requires a good balance between professional and personal lives. “The two dimensions nourish each other,” she says.

    To support its Executive MBA candidates, NEOMA has developed a programme structure that is compatible with a balanced personal life, with options such as online courses, part-time modalities and adapted class schedules.

    Major has personally seen the impact the decision to have children can have on a women’s career. “My mother used to tell me how she stopped her career as she didn’t have the support network to continue,” says Major

    “She instilled in me that if I wanted to continue the career ladder, I shouldn’t let anything stop me. Female applicants to Saïd Business School have now reached 51 percent.

    “Working at Saïd Business School, I am passionate about our work in supporting women to achieve their potential, and becoming a mother has really fuelled that passion.”

    Lack of female representation in MBAs

    Another problem is a lack of female role models in leadership positions or among MBA graduates.
    “Women have historically been underrepresented in business programmes and especially in finance and tech courses,” says Spens. “Gender stereotypes and a lack of role models may explain why fewer women traditionally have pursued a business education.”

    Posting content that doesn’t overlook the difficulties, but demonstrates the value of pursuing an MBA, will inspire future female students and encourage their participation.

    “It can be truly inspiring to hear from global female CEOs, but to also hear stories of students or recent alumnae is what gives women the ‘aha’ moment of ‘that could be me too’,” says Major. “Students also need to see the faculty who are researching this work. Saïd Business School is making great strides in increasing female faculty representation.”

    While women may have the capacity to reach top leadership positions, they may be deterred by self-censorship, spurred by a lack of self-confidence, Huault explains. That’s why the development of gender awareness in executive committees and boards is important.

    Emlyon places a emphasis on highlighting inspiring stories and successful journeys of women, as this is the most effective way to encourage other women to pursue ambitious paths. This has strengthened the presence of women within its leadership team – female leaders have been running the MBA programme since 2014.

    NEOMA also believes in leading by example, particularly when it comes to women in leadership positions. Today, the France-based school boasts a 48 percent female faculty, despite Manceau repeatedly being told that this isn’t possible as there were supposedly fewer female candidates.

    “It’s essential to challenge established models and to question assertions that some things are impossible,” says Manceau. “We must lead by example and highlight women who have faced this challenge before.”

    Financial deterrents

    A third issue that often prevents women from pursuing an MBA is a lack of funding. Additionally, the return on investment of an MBA over the long term might be seen as more uncertain for women because of gender pay gaps and imbalances in the business world.

    To reduce the financial burden of studying for an MBA, many schools now offer financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships specifically targeted at women.

    BI, for example, has initiated a set of measures including scholarships and a network for female finance students. These scholarships have a preference towards women, minorities and those working in non-profit organisations.

    In 2021, two of its full-time MBA students won the prestigious Edie Hunt Inspiration Award,. offered by the Forté Foundation, which recognises women who have gone above and beyond to help advance other women into business leadership positions.

    However, as well as helping funding, Guerra suggests that the higher education sector should do more to address the gender pay gap. “MBA rankings should include more information on the gender pay gap experienced by MBA graduates so that active actions can be taken by schools, students and companies,” she says.

    How can business schools increase gender parity?

    The challenges facing female MBA applicants and students are vast and complicated, made up of a series of societal, political and economic factors.

    The fact is, the more women there are in MBA programmes, the more women will become leaders. The more people are sensitised to the issue of gender parity and equality, including men, the less we will encounter such inequality, explains Huault.

    To devise a solution, business schools must create a strategy that encompasses academic, experiential and personal elements. These must include the whole community, not just female students, Guerra explains.

    Business schools should avoid treating it as a ‘tick box’ exercise or a KPI. This is a human problem, so the solutions should be approached with empathy, authenticity and care.

    “Achieving gender parity in MBA programmes has an impact that goes beyond the business school community and its students, increasing the platform for change and the creation of new business practices and policies,” says Guerra.

    To address the issue of gender inequality in MBA programmes, aim high, Spens concludes: “Even if you start small, think big. Small initiatives can have a big impact for someone.”

    Read more articles like this from QS Insights Magazine, Issue 15.