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Harvard Business School Is Helping Women Break Into The Boardroom — Here's How

$10,750 course to address the challenges women face on ascent to C-suite

Sat Sep 10 2016

The gender diversity drive at elite business schools just got another jolt of energy.

Harvard Business School will launch an executive education course to help high-powered women break into the boardroom.

While progress has been made to boost boardroom diversity, there remains a glass ceiling for women in the top ranks of business.

Consider this depressing fact: Female directors hold just 15% of US board seats, according to data from ISS Analytics, the shareholder advisory service.

“It’s a myth that there aren’t enough qualified women to serve on boards. There’s actually an ample supply,” said Lynn S Paine, HBS professor of business administration and co-chair of the new program, The Women on Boards: Succeeding as a Corporate Director.

“Through this program we aim to bring many of them together and increase their visibility.”

Many board appointments are currently made through informal executive networks, so better linkages can make the challenge of getting on your first board less significant, believes Dianne Bevelander, executive director of Rotterdam University’s Erasmus Centre for Women and Organizations.

“Networking is the lifeblood to a successful professional career,” she said.

The HBS launch comes as the world’s top business schools strive to place gender diversity higher up their agendas. Last year, HBS launched the Gender Initiative, an effort to accelerate the progress of women leaders.

By enrolling more female managers, business schools hope to increase the pipeline of senior women executives. A whopping 50% of female Fortune 500 CEOs have MBA degrees, according to research by Forté Foundation, the non-profit seeking to advance women’s business careers.

The moves are prompted by growing political and public concern over the worrying lack of women in top corporate jobs. And this is despite mounting evidence that diverse boards perform better. Companies are under pressure to not just hire but to speed up the promotion of top female talent, said Dr Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, associate professor at Henley Business School.

HBS’ $10,750 course focuses on understanding the selection process for board membership. And it’ll address the misconceptions and challenges facing women on their ascent to C-suite.

“While it’s widely understood that companies with diverse leadership and employees can leverage a wider breadth of skills and insights, obstacles to boardroom diversity remain,” said Frances Frei, senior associate dean for executive education at HBS.

These include limited seat availability, indefinite term limits for established board members, and biases — both conscious and unconscious — that can impact how boards are selected.

“Unconscious bias is detrimental [to women’s career advancement]. Business schools can play a big role in making managers aware of this bias,” said Sucheta Nadkarni, professor at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School, who penned a widely-cited study on the rise of women in society.

Using case studies, panel discussions, presentations and individual coaching, the HBS program will also help female executives hone their individual leadership styles.

“All senior leaders need to develop the knowledge and skills that boards are seeking,” said Boris Groysberg, professor of business administration at HBS.

“Our goal is to give executives the tools they need to hit the ground running as successful board members,” he added.