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International Women’s Day: How Can Women In Business Drive Social Change?

Business schools and alumni have a responsibility to empower women throughout society, not just at boardroom level

Thu Mar 8 2018

The prominence of women in business can be described as a rising tide which lifts every boat on the water.

Recent research by consulting giant McKinsey has proven that gender-diverse companies are more likely to outperform their less-diverse peers. Hiring women is not only fair; it’s lucrative.

And more women are going into business education than ever before. According to the 2017 GMAC Application Trends Survey report, women represent 42% of global MBA applications—up 5% from 2013.

International Women's Day is about celebrating the progress already made and pushing for more. There’s still a lingering question: do gains for women in business mean gains for all women?

Calls for greater representation of women in CEO positions have been met with the charge of propagating a ‘corporate feminism’ that does little to challenge the status-quo and instead confines progress to a small and already privileged group of women.

However, change is on the horizon. As the rising number of women in business schools coincides with an increasing interest in making a social impact among b-school students, future female business leaders are likely to have a serious social conscience. Business schools too are launching a host of initiatives to further the cause.


“In honor of International Women's Day, I can think of lots of examples of our female students using their business skills to create a positive social impact for women all over the world,” says Erin Worsham, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at the Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

“[These range] from our current students volunteering with local refugee women to advise them on business ideas, to a recent alumna launching a venture to bring better-quality healthcare to women and their families in under-resourced areas,” she continues.

At Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, like at Fuqua, entrepreneurship is often the key to female empowerment.

Tuck MBA alumna Daniella Reichstetter oversees Tuck’s Center for Private Equity and Entrepreneurship. She notes Tuck’s student-run, 50%-female social venture fund—which, now in its second year, is progressing on its third investment in an early-stage social enterprise—and Tuck’s impact investing learning program which attracted over 50 students this year, half of them women.

Tuck’s women MBA alumni are founding companies of their own and ensuring their success has a positive impact on other women too. Gretchen Ki Steidle founded international non-profit Global Grassroots in 2004, three years after completing an MBA at Tuck, to giving women in developing countries the tools to empower themselves.

Tuck’s high-profile, socially-impactful female MBA alums include US senator Tina Smith, Jennifer Wilson, marketing director of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and Debi Brooks, co-founder and executive vice president of The Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Dr. Josette Dijkhuizen, an award-winning entrepreneurship consultant and honorary professor at the Maastricht School of Management (MSM) in the Netherlands, is using her business expertize and connections to help vulnerable women launch careers in entrepreneurship.

Her social entrepreneurship program, Krachtbedrijf, which she started in 2013, gives former sex-workers and survivors of domestic violence the tools to start their own businesses, using the entrepreneurial traits they may not realize they already have. For example, the courage and perseverance it takes to escape from an abusive situation in the first place.


Josette believes that the program is effective because professional development fosters personal empowerment and vice versa: “My expertize is the psychology of entrepreneurship—my PhD is about that—so in the program we put a lot of emphasis on building up self-confidence, self-esteem, optimism, hope, and resilience [through entrepreneurial teaching],” she says.

Looking forward, Josette is hoping to roll out Krachtbedrijf programs globally, possibly partnering with business schools like MSM to produce research and share knowledge, networks, and experience.

But the path of progress as it runs through business does not only lead to entrepreneurship. According to Erin, women MBA grads can make meaningful changes even when they find success in big corporates.

“Female business leaders can be thoughtful about broadening access to opportunities that we might take for granted,” she says.

“For example, by ensuring that job postings get to diverse networks of women, thinking through the experience requirements of those jobs so that they are not setting barriers to women with less traditional backgrounds, and providing mentorship to women that are outside of your normal social circles.”

Inclusive hiring practices and mentorship programs are also important points for Kellie A. McElhany, a distinguished teaching fellow at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, and the founding director of the school’s Center for Gender, Equity, and Leadership.


“Setting up a work environment where women and minorities feel psychologically safe is imperative,” Kellie notes. “Ensuring that women are paid as much as men for the same job, and speaking up when they aren't, is also key to supporting these women in the workplace,” she continues.

"The main goal is to create an environment where they are supported and can succeed in the organization.”

Josette, for her part, thinks that women should be less afraid of publicizing their work as, she says, men generally feel more comfortable doing so. Much of Josette’s work in social entrepreneurship is around spreading awareness and convincing business leaders that helping vulnerable people is their responsibility too. 

“One of the big taboos in Holland is that we don’t talk about vulnerable people,” Josette explains. “So, every time I have the opportunity—whether that’s International Women’s Day, or when I’m lecturing onstage—I always try to convince people that these are issues in their back yard; they’re not far away.”