Just 4 per cent of CEOs at Fortune 1000 companies are female, and just 16 per cent are board members. In London, regarded as Europe's business hub, only three companies in the FTSE 100 are led by women: Burberry, easyJet and Imperial Tobacco. Although the proportion of female executive directors within the index has risen, it remains at a low of 6.1 per cent. Within the FTSE 250, that proportion is even lower and has slipped from 5.7 per cent in May to 5.4 per cent this month.
But Neisha and Paula hope to improve these statistics. They are the co-founders of the Women in Leadership Club at HEC Paris, a business school that sits 8th in the The Economist's MBA Rankings. Both full-time MBA students, they chose to study in France to further their careers and broaden their horizons.
In India, where Neisha was previously head of Christian Dior Couture's retail operations across the entire country, the largest proportion of female CEOs was just 11 per cent, in the financial services sector, according to the Times of India.
Paula worked in B2B sales and business development in the Oil & Energy industry for four years in her home country, Colombia, which in 2009 had just an 11.3 per cent representation of women on executive boards, according to a GMI index. She decided to do an MBA after engineering with the company for over a year.
MBA Clubs are popular in the business school world, and Neisha and Paula were keen to restart the Women in Leadership (WiL) community at HEC Paris, to inspire women and provide a link to leadership programs such as the European Professional Women Network (EPWN), HEC au Feminin and Forte Foundation, post-MBA. "We saw around us women with amazing stories to share," Paula said. "We wanted to create a community that would connect these women.
"Through this platform we could highlight the importance of female leadership, the benefits of a gender-diverse workplace and women’s contribution to economic growth."
They revamped the old MBA club with a new logo and a new vision. They help the WiL members connect, develop links to the corporate world and, ultimately, help students get MBA Jobs. "The club provides a support system to women on campus and for the rest of their lives," Paula said.
"There are plenty of opportunities for female participants to grow, share, network and collaborate to reach the top. The club helps its members to connect to the corporate world by organizing speaker series, alumni events and networking opportunities."
The club has two events for members this year, featuring speakers from the technology and consulting industries to talk about the pay and promotion paradox, and how women's leadership styles can offer the right balance to organizations.
While the pay differences between male and female workers has improved considerably, in some parts of Europe there is still a gender bias. Even in the UK, The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported a 10.2 per cent pay gap between men and women workers in 2010.
Paula worked for top oil & gas firm Schlumberger (formerly Smith International) in Bogota, Colombia before studying an MBA. According to the Women's Engineering Society, in 2012 only 5.5 per cent of engineering professionals were female. She thinks that WiL Clubs will become paramount in the business world. "The fact that women are still underrepresented in corporate boards, not to mention executive committees, highlights how gender diversity is still a challenge for companies," she said.
"Associations such as the WiL Club become of paramount importance to demonstrate how the leadership styles between men and women do not exclude or overlap but rather generate the right leadership balance.”
Neisha added: "The corporate world recognizes the need to restore the natural balance. The business school environment is an opportunity to improve that balance by providing a pipeline of talent to companies."
But Paula and Neisha draw inspiration from Meg Whitman, chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, and Sheryl Sandburg, chief operating officer of Facebook. Their club has inspired a membership of more than 50 women (and some men), and they predict that number to swell. Other b-schools around the world have taken up the trend and started their own women’s business clubs, including UCLA Anderson and the MBA Women in Business Club at St Gallen.
The two co-presidents at HEC Paris believe that their club has enriched their learning process and helped them understand what it takes to be a female business leader. Neisha hopes to return to the consumer goods industry after graduation in 2014 and thinks her MBA has helped her “connect with a network of dynamic people” and refined her analytical skills.
Paula has plans to launch her post-grad career in the energy sector, combining her MBA skillset with engineering. “The opportunity to lead a team of energetic and talented women while connecting with inspiring female personalities helped me to understand what it takes -and means- to be a successful woman,” she said.
“I want to not only to combine my engineering and commercial skills with the business toolkit I am gaining from the MBA, but also to follow my dream of developing and implementing ideas with a meaningful and measurable impact.”
With women-specific business clubs at b-schools across the globe, it is clear MBAs are hoping to address the imbalance at the top of the corporate world. Thanks to Paula's and Neisha’s WiL Club, female MBAs at HEC Paris are given an extra network to become successful business leaders.