Business schools must eliminate gender inequality

Source: De Tijd (08/03/2016); Author: Marion Debruyne (Dean of Vlerick Business School)
Sobering figures show why an International Women’s Day is still so vital. Including for business schools.

Every International Women’s Day we ask ourselves the same question: is this still relevant? Is gender equality still an issue in an era in which Dominique Leroy was voted Manager of the Year, the German chancellor is a woman and Hillary Clinton has entered the home straight and may possibly be elected first female President of the United States?

When we took the initiative at Vlerick Business School to award a scholarship to promising female students, the response was very similar. Is this necessary? And even: isn’t this a little patronising or discriminatory?

But then came the sobering figures, which demonstrate that these examples stand out precisely because they are exceptions to the rule. The World Economic Forum calculated that it will take another 117 years to achieve global gender parity in the workplace at this pace. And while Proximus CEO Dominique Leroy has already received several awards, she is still the only woman at the helm of a BEL 20 company.


The problem is not so much the inflow. It is the fact that women at a certain point during their career decide to take an exit instead of staying on the career highway. There are various reasons for this but it is clear that business schools also play a role here. Their MBA diploma is a much coveted ticket to the next step in one’s career. But international figures reveal that MBA programmes on average have only 34 percent female students. The figure drops to a scant 27 percent for Executive MBA programmes, which target an older and more experienced audience.

It was a man who sounded the alarm. Nitin Nohria, the Dean of Harvard Business School, apologised and confessed that his institution did not make sufficient efforts to create a women-friendly environment. On the contrary even. He said that women at his famous institution might possibly feel excluded, unappreciated and not respected. And he promised to improve things.

A historic event

The White House felt that this issue was important enough to become involved. Last year, it gathered the female deans of some of the leading business schools. This was a historic event, not least because for the first time ever it was possible to gather a group of female leaders, as there were more than one or two women who held this position. Ten of the sixty American business schools have a woman at the helm.

The White House’s initiative gave rise to a manifesto that lists the good intentions and summarises how schools can do their bit to encourage female leadership.
They must start by attracting women and ensuring that they have access to MBA programmes. This means being open to a greater diversity of backgrounds. Women often take a husband and children into account when making choices. Often, this means their career is not as linear as that of men. But if someone has chosen to take an exit along the customary career path, this does not necessarily mean that they lost their way. On the contrary even, they may be treading down different, more important paths.

Schools also promise an experience that makes women feel welcome. So how should women feel when every prominent guest speaker is a man and every case study relates to a man? Nitin Nohria promised to double the number of case studies in which women play the starring role. This would bring the number to a dismal 20 percent. In other words, just ten percent of the material that is presented to MBA students today has a woman as protagonist.

Schools must also create an environment that prepares future leaders for diversity on the workfloor. This means that we must discuss how diversity contributes to better results and convey this message to all our students. And train them to become leaders who can create and fully capitalise on this diversity themselves.

Finally, business schools must also set a good example. And a lot of work still remains to be done there. A meeting of female deans in Europe would gather a very small number of attendants. Only three of the top 30 European business schools have a female dean. And whereas the number of female students, i.e. 34 percent, has not quite reached the desired 50/50 split, the figure is even more dismal for female professors. Only 26 percent of the lecturers at business schools are women.

To practise what we preach… It looks like we academics still face quite a challenge.

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