In recent years top business schools have made great strides in closing their gaping gender divides — and in turn helping to diversify the top ranks of business.
But those efforts risk falling short, as new data continues to show that companies’ executive suites remain male-dominated.
The progress made in boosting the number of top women in leading MBA programs has not been matched in executive positions.
Executive search firm MWM Consulting found that, while non-executive roles are much more diverse, women executives represented 9.6% of UK boards, a meagre rise from 5.5% in 2011. In the US, women CEOs make up only 4% of the S&P 500 and Nasdaq listed companies. And there are no women CEOs among CAC 40 firms in France or the DAX index in Germany.
Elissa Sangster, executive director for women’s advocacy group Forté Foundation, said business schools have been “aggressive” in targeting women. But, “will we see an immediate response in the number of women in the top ranks of business? It won’t happen”.
Yet, she added, if there isn’t gender equity in MBA programs, companies may miss out on a key pipeline of leadership talent — half of female Fortune 100 CEOs have an MBA.
Not only is there a worrying gap between the careers of men and women at the top in business, but the pay gulf remains wide.
According to research published last year by the FT, three years after graduation the average male MBA earns $137,000; women earn just $120,000. And research from Catalyst found the gap widens as female MBAs move up in their careers.
Professor Dianne Bevelander at Rotterdam School of Management, said the gulf is discouraging for female business school students.
“They deserve and are fully entitled to the leadership roles and the pay that men achieve,” she said.
Barbara Silveira, a former commodities trader studying for an MBA at Lancaster University Management School, believes business schools are important in closing the gender divide.
“It will be easier and an even more natural process to promote gender diversity if there are more women and leaders to serve as examples in our society,” she said. Some 50% of MBAs are LUMS are women.
Elite business schools have boosted female enrolment through targeting more women in the admissions process with funding, and other initiatives.
Research from Forté Foundation last year found female MBA enrolment among 36 top US schools — including Rice Jones, Columbia and Robert H. Smith — rose from 32% in 2011 to 36% in 2015.
“Our mission is to train new leaders — both men and women — who redefine how we do business,” said Erin Kellerhals, interim executive director of MBA admissions at Berkeley Haas School. “Diversity in the classroom is a critical factor in our learning environment. Women often have a different worldview than men.”
School leaders remain adamant that education will improve women’s career opportunities.
“For women to contribute consistently and well at these senior levels, they need more opportunities to acquire the wisdom of both education and experience,” said Maura Herson, MBA program director at MIT Sloan School of Management, who has been outspoken on the topic.
“MBA programs... also need women to contribute their perspective and leadership in the classroom, in collaborative interactions with peers, and in innovating beyond the status quo,” she added.
Everyone agrees that more needs to be done to diversify the corporate world — research by Bespoke Investment Group has shown that some women CEOs outperform their male counterparts.
Boulding, dean of Duke Fuqua School of Business, said: “Attracting more women into business schools and the business world is about winning.”
“If we improve the diversity of the MBA workforce, we will help create the value society so badly needs from the business community,” he said.
But opinions remain divided over how to more quickly achieve gender parity. Increasing educational opportunities is just one approach.
“Offering flexible and agile working is a key strategy for most businesses — as well as providing training around unconscious bias,” said Sally Clare, head of diversity at recruitment firm Ambition.
She said that some organizations are also implementing mentoring, sponsorship and training aimed at identifying, nurturing and promoting female talent.
These include “specific strategies to support mothers returning to work” and by profiling women leaders who are balancing a successful career with personal commitments.