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Women In Business School: Network Effect Opens Routes To Top Jobs

Retaining female employees is key to upping gender diversity. Professional networks are helping women at business school and beyond climb the corporate ladder.

By  Seb Murray

Tue Jun 16 2015

Strides have been made in the march toward greater gender diversity but in the corporate world the top jobs still seem out of reach for many women.

Getting more senior female managers is important for companies but retaining them is perhaps an even more crucial challenge that they need to overcome.

To close the gender gap, businesses are organizing programs to help mid and senior career women to overcome problems such as reluctance to speak up and promote themselves. In the battle for gender parity, women are finding strength in numbers.

“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,” says Dr Muhammad Azam Roomi, senior lecturer at Cranfield School of Management, who has led research at the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship.

The Centre’s research has confirmed the impact of education on building social capital. It found business education in particular improves women’s self-confidence and credibility, and provides the networking aspects of joining an intellectually elite group.

Professional women’s networks are also helping women to climb the corporate ladder. “Networking is the lifeblood to a successful professional career,” says Dr Dianne Bevelander, director of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations at Rotterdam School of Management.

Business schools are touted by experts as instrumental to getting higher female board representation, and many have formed successful alumni networks to help graduates progress in their careers. “Business schools are the perfect place for many women to begin understanding, building and honing valuable professional networks,” says Dianne.

She points out that female business students get introduced to the right people; get constructive and honest feedback on their ideas; and find mentors and peers with whom to discuss career goals.

“We strive to help women achieve the careers they desire,” says Lorraine Jonemann, president of the Women’s Business Connection at UCLA Anderson School of Management, a top US business school.

The network uses a mentorship program which pairs students with alumni in a sector of their choosing. It also holds brunches with female recruiters, which help members learn from executives and navigate their long-term career goals.

The Women’s Business Connection is one of a growing number of student-run networks for women at business schools. Similar initiatives are run at INSEAD, Virginia’s Darden School and the Sauder School of Business in Canada.  

Genevieve Joyce Lupton, co-president of the Association of Women in Business at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, says women’s networks not only provide career connections but offer members an additional layer of support.

“Our goal is to make every woman feel welcomed by our community,” she says.

Initiatives to improve female representation on boards have been embraced in most economies. Yet a striking gulf at the executive level bares the hallmarks of a business climate that is still male dominated.

Just 23 of the Fortune 500 group of companies have a female chief executive officer — among them the chiefs of Hewlett-Packard, Pepsi Co and IBM. When Alison Brittain becomes head of Whitbread in January, she will be only the sixth female FTSE 100 CEO.

Some countries — such as Germany, France and Norway — have imposed quotas for gender representation on boards.

But a study commissioned by the bank BNY Mellon and fund manager Newton Investment Management found that quotas are of limited value because they have no significant impact on keeping women in their boardroom positions.

An academic working paper on business in Norway by Astrid Kunze, of the Norwegian School of Economics, and Amalia Miller of University of Virginia found that women with the same years of education, experience, tenure and hours of work as men were less likely to be promoted than males. Yet the results suggested recruiting and retaining more women among senior ranks could help reduce the gender gap in promotion.

“They [companies] want their incoming classes to be 50/50 but they realize there is much to be done to keep them [women] in their organizations,” says Elissa Ellis-Sangster, executive director at Forté Foundation, which promotes women’s business careers through access to education.

Companies are beginning to see the benefits of gender diversity, says Candice Morgan, senior director of global member services at Catalyst, a women’s advocacy and research organization.

Catalyst has conducted research on Fortune 100 and FTSE 100 companies and found that around 90% have used professional women’s networks. “Companies are investing in them,” says Candice.

These networks first began as informal gatherings at the grassroots level but have evolved to include senior level women. Many companies are also moving toward professional development, with competitive elections to lead the women’s networks, which provide visibility. “It’s seen as a hot job,” says Candice.

One example is General Electric, the US industrial champion. It’s Women's Network, which has more than 100,000 members, aims to cultivate their leadership skills, business practices, personal contacts and career opportunities.

GE’s Women’s Network established a scholarship program in 2002 to build a future pipeline of talent for its leadership programs. It has raised more than $700,000 from employee donations for female students in the engineering, technology and finance fields.

Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceuticals group, runs the Women’s Leadership Initiative, which works to advance women inside the corporation and has grown to have 50 chapters. This is bearing fruit — nearly half of J&J US employees are women and of those, 40% are senior managers, according to research by the National Association for Female Executives, which ranks companies on diversity.

Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, national managing partner for diversity at KPMGranked in the top-10, says: “Our women leaders play a critical role in maintaining...[A] high performing, inclusive and purpose-driven culture.”

Many corporations also utilize mentors and sponsors specifically for women. “Mentors influence women at the personal level by increasing their self-confidence and by providing advice and emotional support,” says Cranfield’s Muhammad.

Mentors also provide opportunities for women to move up in their careers, he adds. A lack of role models at the top is cited as a contributing factor to the gender diversity problem. “We need more women role models in business,” says Dianne at Rotterdam School, who can motivate and inspire others.

Professional services firm EY, which has 46% female senior managers, is a leader in this area. Its sponsorship program sees senior partners advocate for women in their groups and help them get promoted to the top jobs.

“Women’s advancement is good for our business and for all of our people,” says Karyn Twaronite, EY's global diversity and inclusiveness officer. Diverse teams are higher-performing, she says. “Gender diversity enhances our workplace, the experiences of our people and ultimately, the service we deliver.”

Yet talking about sensitive issues internally within companies can be difficult. Many organizations are joining cross-sector bodies to promote diversity.

Ellevate, the global professional women's network, for example connects and invests in businesses that are leaders in gender diversity, through a mutual fund which buys shares in the top-rated companies in the world for advancing women.

Nathalie Walker, external affairs director at Cambridge Judge Business School, which launched a major women’s leadership initiative, says being able to speak openly is “invaluable” for women. “Getting an external perspective on your own corporate environment can definitely help you sense check whether or not you think you can flourish where you are,” she says.

She points out that men have traditionally been perceived to make more use of networks, but this in changing and, in many of Cambridge Judge’s recent graduating cohorts, it is the female alumni who are the key connectors.

“As we continue to strive for equal pay, representation and treatment, there is an obvious value in working together,” says Nathalie.