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Harvard Initiative Highlights Women’s Leadership Drive At Elite B-Schools

Harvard effort underscores drive to promote women's access to business education — key to closing boardroom gender gap.

Thu Jul 23 2015

Fifty years ago Harvard Business School had not admitted a woman to its MBA program. Today, it is a frontrunner in the campaign for gender diversity.

The launch of Harvard’s Gender Initiative to support research, teaching, and knowledge to promote gender equity in business has highlighted the increasing efforts top business schools are going to close the gender gulf.

Progress has been made on closing the gap between the careers of men and women at the top. But further effort is required to advance women leaders worldwide.

“So much of what people think they know about gender is simply not substantiated by empirical evidence but instead is based on gender stereotypes,” said Robin Ely, senior associate dean who leads the project. “We want to develop the Initiative so that Harvard Business School becomes the ‘go-to place’ on gender issues.”

Key to such initiatives are tailoring business school offerings to better attract women. Dozens have moved in this direction, including specialist women’s leadership courses at ESADE Business School, Saïd Business School and GWU School of Business.

“Business schools have made so many strides in the last 10 years to get a market to women…And I think they’ve built environments that are more inclusive,” said Elissa Ellis-Sangster, executive director of Forté Foundation, which promotes women’s business careers through education.

Most MBA programs remain male dominated. Yet some, such as Lancaster University Management School in the UK, Berkeley’s Haas School in the US and Nanyang Business School in Singapore have hit or are approaching gender parity.

This is much the result of fresh measures to recruit women candidates, such as the Women’s Ambassador’s Day and Women’s Week initiatives at MIT Sloan School. Others in the US, such as Duke’s Fuqua School, see student-led clubs work with admissions departments to target female talent.

“We strive to build a community among women, and we see that connection starting even before [candidates] enrol,” said Lorraine Jonemann, Women’s Business Connection president at UCLA Anderson School of Management.

A common barrier to entry at elite schools is funding. But millions of dollars has collectively been allocated by the top schools for scholarship funding to help enrol more women.

London Business School has a partnership with Lloyds Banking Group, for example, while The 30% Club, which campaigns to get 30% female UK board representation, provides funding with schools including Henley and Imperial College.

Nearly $70 million has also been provided to more than 3,000 female MBA candidates at the likes of Cornell, Dartmouth and Georgetown business schools by Forté Foundation. “The business school pipeline is really important,” Elissa said.

Education has a significant impact on getting more women on boards, according to a study commissioned by BNY Mellon and led by Cambridge Judge Business School, which recently launched a major women’s leadership initiative.

Dr Dianne Bevelander, director of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organizations at Rotterdam School of Management, said that women benefit from being able to build and hone valuable professional networks while at business school. “They get introduced to the right people,” she said.

Research by Cranfield School of Management has found business education improves women’s self-confidence and credibility.

“Linking social capital provides links to otherwise disconnected people and opens doors to opportunities and resources — resulting in better employment and revenue and profit growth,” said Dr Muhammad Azam Roomi, senior lecturer at Cranfield School.

Big initiatives and inspiring stories from successful women are helpful in keeping gender issues at the front of the mind, but sustainable change will happen slowly, said Kathryn Bishop, director of Saïd Business School’s Women Transforming Leadership program at University of Oxford.