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Inspiring The Next Generation Of Women At Business School

In 2000 there were just 30% women in the full-time MBA at Stanford GSB. That figure had risen to 38% in 2008, just before Lehman Brothers collapsed, but as we moved through the next two years of the financial crisis the number fell to 34%. During an economic downturn many talented young women decided that it was not the right time to go to business school.

Ten years later, Stanford welcomed 47% women to the Palo Alto MBA classroom, a record for the program. When the pandemic hit in early 2010, they and other top schools were concerned that they would again see a reversal of the gender balance they all work so hard to achieve. Speaking with me at the CentreCourt MBA Festival, the Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions, Kirsten Moss told me that despite many headwinds the team had ‘managed to land the plane pretty much where we wanted it.’ The incoming class again has 47% women.

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In business education, gender equality is part of a wider focus on diversity and inclusion, and schools are redoubling their efforts during the pandemic to encourage more women to invest in themselves and their future. Twenty years ago there were just 18% women in the Executive MBA at London Business School (LBS), and the school recently joined forces with Imperial College Business School, Cambridge Judge and Oxford’s Saïd Business School – the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ of UK schools – for an event showcasing four alumnae to discuss the challenges they face.

“The pandemic and economic downturn have disproportionately affected working women and a new set of challenges have arisen,” explains Tracey Horn, Director of Communications and Marketing at Cambridge Judge Business School. “To say that the news is not good is an understatement. Many of the gains in organizational gender equity achieved in recent years, are in danger of being wiped out as a result of the pandemic and so our four schools came together to create a collaborative event, In conversation with inspiring EMBA Business School alumnae to demonstrate the power of an EMBA and the transformative impact, through the shared experience of our talented alumnae.”

The four UK schools now average close to 30% women on their EMBA programs, and are determined to see that number continue to rise. They can take inspiration from the progress they have made with the full-time MBA – with a 47% female cohort in the full-time MBA program at Oxford Saïd they stand alongside Stanford GSB as one of the most balanced MBA programs in the world.

More Choice, More Balance

As the profile of the typical business school applicant has evolved in recent years, so too have the programmes these schools offer, to keep abreast of the current trends and demands of modern industry. Looking beyond the MBA, a growing number of business schools offer specialized master degrees – the three most popular being the Masters in Management, the MSc Finance and the MSc Data or Business Analytics – to prepare students with necessary skills to succeed. So, what is the gender balance like on these specialized Masters courses?

According to a report by the AACSB in 2016, female graduates comprised 52.9% of all specialised Masters graduates in the US. Underlying these overall statistics are important trends in program options, candidate recruitment, and career outcomes that provide some insight as to why women around the world are deciding that now is the right time for them to pursue a graduate management education.

According to the Financial Times 2020 rankings, 56 of the top 100 schools for Masters in Management courses reported 50% or more female representation. For some, the proportion of female students is increasing year on year: In 2019, both Durham University Business School and WU Vienna University of Economics and Business reported female representation of 53% and 46% respectively. A year later, women made up 66% of Durham’s intake, while 62% enrolled in the pre-experience Masters at Vienna.

ESCP Business School, the world’s oldest business school with campuses in six European countries has maintained a gender balance of 50/50 for its past two MiM cohorts. Lina Jamal is a current MiM student at ESCP’s Paris campus, and believes initiatives and events at the school help drive gender equality. “Many conferences about women in different job areas are organised on campus. Companies such as BCG or McKinsey are sending women speakers in order to empower female students. The school plays a key role when inviting successful women, and we can project ourselves into them. ESCP also encourages the diversity of profiles for the MiM program with many international students from completely different backgrounds. This emphasis also encourages gender balance.”

Lina feels the gender representation of students may also be impacted by the representation seen amongst faculty. “We have numerous female professors, which is truly important in order to have a representation of our gender at the academic level. Indeed, the more women are present as students or as professors in universities, the more women will be present in companies such as consulting firms or banks.”

Importance Of A Network

Emlyon Business School in France is another institution maintaining a strong gender balance on their MiM with 51% female representation last year. The school claims this is not linked to any special scholarships or recruitment incentives, but thanks to a great network of female emlyon students and ambassadors promoting their programs and illustrating their image of openness and parity.

Under the initiative of Isabelle Huault, the first woman to be appointed President of the Management Board at the school, they are also raising awareness through social and environmental efforts. Every program now includes CSR-oriented modules and interventions, with gender balance identified as one of the School’s CSR priorities. Emlyon is writing a charter in favour of professional equality between women and men.

Jolande Bot-Vos, Academic Director of the MSc Management and MSc International Management programmes at Imperial College Business School in London, also credits female ambassadors for their gender balance. “We are very active in recruiting female candidates to our Masters programmes. We connect female candidates with female student ambassadors on who share their positive experiences with the female-friendly learning environment. We also ensure that we use business cases, examples and exercises in our lectures with female role models.”

Diversity As a Core Value

In the past three years, Vlerick Business School in Belgium has seen a steady increase in applications from female students but, for the first time this year, has seen a majority of female candidates for their MiM. Kerstin Fehre, Programme Director for Vlerick’s Masters in International Management & Strategy, attributes this to the values of the school as well as a number of initiatives designed to support female students. “We think our good gender balance goes back to three aspects: diversity being a core value, our female dean and other female top management positions, and the diversity of the MiM program itself meaning there is something in the program for everyone.”

In order to attract more women specifically, Vlerick has two scholarship initiatives: The Women in STEM scholarship, awarded to female applicants who show leadership potential with an outstanding academic record in a STEM subject. There is also the Vlerick 20FOR20, a community of top women who want to show the next generation of female leaders their support and inspire them. “The objective is to have 20 female leaders fund 20 scholarships each year,’ explains Kerstin Fehre. “In the current MiM class, we were able to award a partial scholarship to no less than 40% of our female students.”

Though finance has long been a male-dominated industry, business schools have an important role to build the pipeline of female talent. For the Masters in Finance, 23 of the top 100 schools in the Financial Times 2020 rankings had over 40% women on their programmes. The UK is leading the way, claiming seven of the top 12 positions for the strongest female cohorts. Trinity Business School in Ireland, not only has 57% female students but is also has the strongest gender-balanced faculty – exactly half of the professors are women.

Ashley Kambeitz, a student on Trinity Business School’s MFin program, says the gender balance on their course is something she really noticed. “I was hugely relived when I was looking around that first day. I believe Trinity is so good at achieving gender balance on their MSc Finance because they make diversity a priority. They understand the value it adds in the classroom and ensure that they encourage all genders, ethnicities and cultures to apply and take part.”

Gender Balance Benefits Everyone

Ashley argues that making gender diversity a priority has benefits for everyone. “Women feel empowered and heard which allows the school and future employers to gain more confident and insightful employees in both males and females. Gender balance is also beneficial for the males as it gives them more experience with women in professional settings and forces them to see the improvements that are required still.”

“I have been disrespected due to my gender before, but never at Trinity. I have never felt uncomfortable with any faculty at Trinity because they make it clear first and foremost you are their student and a person that they respect.”

Looking to Asia, Nazarbayev University’s Graduate School of Business in Kazakhstan holds a reputation for maintaining gender balance on its MFin course: a 50/50 balance in 2018 and 2019, and 2020 welcomed a class that is 59% female. Marek Jochec, Director of the MFin program, believes this is due to how their country prioritises gender balance and their admissions process. “Kazakhstan is a relatively gender-balanced country and the education of females is traditionally strong. Female high school graduates have somewhat better grades than males; assuming this continues into bachelor degree, they have slightly better credentials and compete successfully for placement at admissions, which is gender-blind.”

Though 2020 marked women’s highest Fortune 500 representation in the C-Suite, there is still a long way to go. Only 41 women (8.2%) were leading a Fortune 500 company at the start of 2021, though in 2000 there were only two. The figures for CFOs are estimated around 18%, but still far short of any sort of balance.

After a year in which the pandemic and economic downturn have disproportionately affected working women, the efforts of business schools to attract, support and inspire the next generation of female talent is more important than ever.

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