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MBA Women In Business Clubs Are Bringing Women Into The Boardroom

At business schools across the world, a thriving network of female business leaders is emerging. Women's MBA clubs are helping women land MBA jobs and break into the boardroom.

Tue Jun 3 2014

For Pooja Prasad, club business is booming. Her Women’s Business Association at the Kellogg School of Management in Illinois is bursting at the seams.

Her club can hardly keep up with demand from the increasing number of budding female business leaders looking for networking, events and industry contacts. She already has hundreds of members who have engaged in the club’s programming, including a bevy of male students. She also has two male liaisons who are part of the club’s leadership team.

“We are the largest club on campus with over 400 members – male and female,” she says. “The WBA’s mission is to connect, support and develop women at Kellogg,” adds Pooja.

At business schools across the world, a thriving network is emerging. Pooja is just one of the thousands of female MBAs providing a platform for her peers to launch from.

The hopes and aspirations of this generation of businesswomen have been charted up in a recent study by Mckinsey & Company, the consultancy. The firm’s Women Matter 2013 report has focused on the case for change and more female inclusion at executive level.

The study found that in most countries, the gender disparity is overwhelming: the United States 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.

Yet women still bring in 25% of America’s GDP, according to McKinsey, and an equal rate of women and male employees would fill the 40 million new hires needed to plug the country’s highly-skilled workers gap.

In other regions of the world, it is worse still. In China just 8% of corporate board spots are held by women.

“Thousands of women throughout the world have the ambition and potential to make an increased economic contribution, whether through starting their own businesses, getting a job, or simply managing the family’s finances,” says Linda Scott, founder of Power Shift, an annual symposium on women as economic actors in the global marketplace.

“But so many of them are unable to do so because of a raft of legal and cultural barriers that prevent them even opening a basic bank account.”

Saïd Business School, part of the University of Oxford, has just launched a campaign to promote financial inclusion for women. Peter Tufano, the school’s Dean, signed a petition to world leaders to make financial inclusion for women a global imperative. Chief among the recommendations was increasing women’s access to skilled jobs, including leadership positions in the financial sector.

It’s an understandable concern. Women made up just 36% of all financial investment employees in the US last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and 32% of financial analysts.

The head of diversity at a top European finance firm said: “I was worried that we had very few women in a high-potential program; when I reviewed the list of criteria to enter the program, it appeared to be extremely gendered.”

Yet data from McKinsey suggests that gender diversity leads to more corporate success. European firms with the highest proportion of women in power saw their stock value climb by 64% over two years, compared with an average of 47%.

The firm also reports that companies with a top-quartile representation of women executives see a 47% increase on equity returns.

Across the entire 2013 McKinsey survey, of more than 1,400 company managers, 74% of men agree that diverse leadership teams will generate better performance.

“Research indicates that women have a key role to play in stimulating economic growth at all levels, so it makes sense to find ways to increase women’s access to economic activity and services, and to enhance their financial capabilities,” says Oxford Saïd Dean, Professor Peter.

Business schools provide a route for women to reach the boardroom quicker. Forté Foundation, the non-profit consortium which helps women launch business careers, has dished out $45 million to more than 2,300 female MBA students to help saddle the cost of tuition. The firm is sponsored by a bevy of Fortune 500 companies and leading consultancies.

“With more women obtaining advanced degrees and participating in the workforce and more dual-income families, the same factors and issues now affect both women and men,” says Elissa Ellis Sangster, Forté executive director. “Yet we haven’t fully challenged old assumptions.”

Duke University is an older US institution where budding businesspeople network with eachother at the university’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina.

The places on the school’s MBA programs, which are some of the highest ranked in the world, are increasingly filled with women.  

Camille Wingo, co-president of the school’s Association of Women in Business club, says an MBA is a great place for women to start. “These are institutions that are cultivating the next generation of business leaders.”

But she adds: “However, the number of female MBA candidates is significantly lower than that of men across most top-tier business schools. That’s why AWIB… [has] a strong partnership in planning programs to attract more female applicants, and convey the value of the Fuqua MBA from a female perspective.”

Margaret Mountjoy, club co-president and MBA student, says membership is open to all. A club initiative just won Fuqua’s "Collective Diversity" award, she says. “And we recently added two male positions to our executive cabinet to help support our goal of bringing men into the conversation,” adds Margaret.

In March, the club’s annual Duke MBA Women's Leadership Conference drew 250 MBAs and professionals. Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the U.S Fund for UNICEF, and Patricia Miller, co-founder of Vera Bradley, a fashion accessories brand, were keynote speakers.

Kirsten Brito, newly-appointed head of AGSM’s first Women In Leadership organization, is hosting a series of networking events – the Empower Event Series – to empower female MBAs. She runs a kids’ toy start-up, The Running Rabbits, alongside studying the Australian business school’s full-time MBA program.

Although women make up less than 20% of the country’s entrepreneurial scene, Kirsten is still abound with confidence in her club’s activates.

“From my research, I've found that although a lot of women agree that we need more leadership training and support programs, it is a whole other thing for women to step up and make this a priority in their careers,” she says.

“I'm a big believer of women empowerment. I think there are a lot of very talented and brilliant women. But… it is still a work in progress,” Kirsten adds.

France-based HEC Paris is one of the leading European business schools hoping to ramp-up its female MBA offering. Its students were keen to restart the Women In Leadership community and the club has been revamped to develop closer ties with the French corporate world.

Paula Quinones Rozo, MBA and co-founder of the club, says: “The club provides a support system [for] women… there are plenty of opportunities for female participants to… reach the top. The club helps its members to connect to the corporate world by organizing speaker series, alumni events and networking opportunities.”

Emily Feldman is an out-going president of MIT Sloan School of Management’s Sloan Women in Management (SWIM ) club. The network has swelled to 250 female members, overseen by a 30-strong leadership team.

Many business schools have developed sizeable women’s MBA networks to help increase low female enrolment figures and to boost career opportunities.

Emily, meanwhile, remains optimistic: “One of the best parts of SWIM is the opportunity to take on major initiatives and leadership opportunities that will help us in our future careers… we gain experience managing large teams, building relationships with corporate sponsors, and planning and executing large-budget events.”