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MBA Careers: Why Women MBAs Do It Better Than Men

Business schools, for all their efforts to trump diversity, still fail to bridge the gender gap. But new initiatives at b-school and big corporations are giving female MBAs a helping hand.

Sat Jun 14 2014

A few years ago, Sujata Lamba, one of the financial world’s most successful female businesswomen, was deployed into a copper mine somewhere in Asia. It was her first day on the job.

The director of the finance and private sector department at the World Bank crammed into the mine with her male colleagues. After 20 minutes, the heat and dust became unbearable – but not for her.

“My male colleague, after 20 minutes, asked me to come up with him so he could use me as an excuse,” says Sujata.

The snub was not a one-off occurrence. In a previous career in the world of investment banking, there were many cultural barriers she has had to overcome.

“Particularly in the financial investment world you’re expected to be formidable, work 24-hours, and yet look after the house and be the maternal presence. How do you balance [that]?” she asks.

The problem extends well beyond big banks. Business schools, for all their efforts to trump diversity, still fail to bridge the gender gap.

The criticism has been tightening around the business world’s neck, which has traditionally been dominated by male executives in most sectors.

Last month one of the UK’s leading business schools joined the fight. Said Business School, part of the University of Oxford, announced its backing for a world-wide gender initiative.

Professor Peter Tufano, dean of the school, signed a petition to world leaders to make financial inclusion for women a global imperative.

The petition was launched during Power Shift: The Oxford Forum on Women in the World Economy, an annual symposium on women as economic actors in the global marketplace. Leading figures from Credit Suisse, Alstom and Goldman Sachs were in attendance.

Dean Peter said: “Research indicates that women have a key role to play in stimulating economic growth at all levels… this petition focuses attention upon these key issues and calls upon the business community and policy makers to direct efforts to addressing them.”

Equality has cast a pall over business schools, which had been enjoying strides in repairing the gender divide. Michele Ozumba, president and CEO of the Women’s Funding Network, says she sees a “power” globally championing the call for equality and removing all the gender disparities.  

Now the MBA education industry is waking up to the need for more women-specific initiatives to boost enrolment numbers. There is no suggestion that business schools are intentionally bias in their selection.

Of all the top-10-ranked MBA programs, none have an equal divide of male and female MBA students. The Wharton School, part of the University of Pennsylvania, is the closest with 42% female MBA students. The lowest has just 26% of its class spots occupied by women.

This is despite professors’ assertions that students learn huge amounts from their peers, rather than faculty. It is also in spite of the huge value that schools place in the diversity of their MBA programs.

Inge Kerkloh-Devif, the female executive director of HEC Paris’ executive education programs, says an internationally diverse class is “80% or 90%” of the reason students join the business school.

Female MBA clubs have been trying to ramp-up female candidates’ interests in their school’s MBA programs. Some are even working with admissions staff to develop women-only events.

The Fuqua School of Business, for example, holds a Weekend For Women event before term – co-run by the school’s Association of Women in Business network.

Pooja Prasad has made it her ambition to ensure that Kellogg School of Management is the best business school for women. Her school is one of the US’ highest-ranking.

“We also plan to more deeply engage international women on campus so that they feel connected to the WBA mission,” says Pooja, club president. Others, however, remain unconvinced.

Barbara Bader-Klein, a female Oxford EMBA graduate, says: “I think we’ve still got a way to go. The numbers are quite representative of the reality of business itself in senior levels. It’s not just a challenge for the business schools to further women in leadership positions, but in business as a whole.”

From a gala at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in January, Nitin Nohria was in an apologetic mood. The Dean of Harvard Business School was taking a backlash.

Case studies, which make-up up to a third of MBA curriculums, were being lambasted as bias. Harvard, which dishes out some 80% of the world’s business cases, revealed that just 9% were written on a female business leader.

Despite the gains made by many US schools, gender inequality appeared rife. Some students were in uproar. Nitin issued an apology. He said women at Harvard felt disrespected at times and promised to make it better. Harvard pledged to double the school’s number of female protagonists in its case studies to 20% over the next five years.

Nitin said: “We can do better and we must do better. Harvard Business School has to lead the way to make that happen. We are taking many steps to ensure that W50 (a summit focused on closing the gender gap) is not [just] an event.”

It is thought that business schools should be leading by example when it comes to championing women in the workplace. Instead it seems for many, it is the other way around.

Yet women are being hailed as better business leaders than men. A study by consultancy firm Zenger Folkman found that as women mature they are perceived in an increasingly positive way, and are more effecting than their male counterparts.

The firm has 450,000 feedback instruments pertaining to about 45,000 leaders. Women in the study outperformed men on leadership competencies including: taking initiative; driving for results; and developing others.

Bob Sherwin, COO of Zenger Folkman, wrote: “These competencies highlight that women were seen as more effective in getting things done, being role models and delivering results. These skills describe leaders who take on difficult challenges, ensure that people act with integrity, and who simply achieve challenging results.”

A recent study by Mckinsey & Company, the consultancy, had similar results. The firm’s Women Matter 2013 report found that in most countries, the gender disparity is overwhelming: the US has just 16% of its corporate board seats occupied by women.

That comes in spite of research which suggests companies with a high representation of women in executive committees earn 55% more before interest and tax.

Big firms, however, have been trying to adapt. Wendy Hawkins, a female executive director at Intel Foundation, an organization within the tech giant that seeks to empower girls and women, says in recent years the company has tried to strengthen women as leaders.

Intel holds large networking events twice a year that all women at the company are invited to, and holds online forums on women’s leadership topics on a regular basis, she says. Intel also has a female president – one rank behind CEO.

“That’s been critical in changing the dialogue at Intel and changing the way we are,” says Wendy, who has worked at the foundation for the past 24 years.

Michele from the Women's Funding Network says that using women’s stories is an important part of her organization’s work. “[We] use them strategically as evidence of impact as part of the evaluation, and creating space for the way in which women’s work can be seen for its values, beyond the traditional quantitative measures.”

Meanwhile, female entrepreneurs have been turning to women’s funding networks for unique support. A clutch of online angel investors has cropped up, allowing investors to test their appetite for fledgling ventures using only small amounts of money.

Sujata from the World Bank says self-help groups have proved successful for women to secure start-up funding. She has also tried in the past to pair these women with finance training programs to help entrepreneurs gather collateral for loans.

“Success is not guaranteed, but we have to keep trying,” she adds.

But for business schools, such success may be years away.