Talking the Talk

Two professors tell their stories about being women in business fields traditionally dominated by men.
Talking the Talk

IT’S RARE ENOUGH that b-school professors are women, and it’s rarer still for them to be leaders in tech-oriented fields such as engineering or the computer sciences. In fact, data from AACSB International shows that, among computer information systems and management information systems faculty at AACSB schools, only about 20 percent of full professors are women; for associate professors and assistant professors, the number is closer to 27 percent.

But the College of Business at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami has managed to buck that trend. Its department of information systems and business analytics can boast that 13 of its 33 faculty members—almost 40 percent—are women, and many of them are in leadership roles.

“I THINK WE’RE REALLY LUCKY TO WORK IN THIS FIELD. THE PART I ENJOY MOST IS HOW WE’RE ABLE TO CHANGE PEOPLE’S LIVES BY GUIDING STUDENTS TOWARD A DEGREE THAT HAS SUCH IMPACT AND SO MANY WORK OPTIONS.” —MONICA TREMBLAY

That’s no accident. Former dean Joyce Elam, now dean emerita of the College of Business, made it a priority to hire women; when Monica Tremblay was appointed as chair, she did the same. Other women, such as associate professor Karlene Cousins, hold prominent positions within the department. Cousins is faculty coordinator of the master’s in information systems program, and she oversees the school’s faculty technology consulting practice known as ATOM (Analytics, Technology, and Operations Management).

The presence of so many women in the department not only attracts additional female professors, says Tremblay, but brings in more female students who are interested in studying tech-related business. Schoolwide, total College of Business enrollment is about half female; in the information systems and business analytics department, about a third of the students are women. Because FIU offers undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees in business analytics, Tremblay notes, it is helping to prime the pipeline with more women who could become academics in this field.

Tremblay recently left FIU to take a position at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, but before she departed FIU, she sat down with Cousins to discuss the role of women both in technology specifically and in academia generally.

They shared some of their personal experiences in which they faced obstacles to success, described the importance of mentorship, and reflected on what other schools can do to draw more women—and people of color—into tech-based management professions. We have placed the video of their complete conversation online, but here we present an edited version of their observations on topics related to diversity and gender equity within business schools today.

On Choosing Careers in Academia

Cousins: I grew up in Jamaica and went to university there. After pursuing undergraduate degrees in science and physics, I worked for a couple of years in industry. I was being mentored by men, because it was so rare to have women in technology in Jamaica. I was lucky to work with colleagues who had my interests at heart, who made sure I was engaged in professional development activities. One of them decided to go to Georgia State University to pursue a PhD in information systems, and one of his colleagues followed him. Whatever these guys did, I wanted to do! So it seemed natural for me to follow them on this path.

I also wanted to be an expert in my field, to be on the cutting edge of technology, and to be a thought leader. Also, I wanted to teach and share my knowledge with others. That was a passion of mine.

Tremblay: My degree is in industrial and systems engineering. My father, who was an engineer, said, “It doesn’t matter what you end up doing, engineering will make you sound smart.” I spent quite a bit of time in industry, working for ExxonMobil. When I was doing my master’s at the University of South Florida, one of the professors asked if I’d thought about doing a PhD. He said, “You would be fantastic at this.” It was a natural fit right from the beginning.

I think we’re really lucky to work in this field. The part I enjoy the most is how we’re able to change people’s lives by guiding students toward a degree that has such impact and so many work options. That’s especially true at a place like FIU that has a lot of first-generation students.

On Encouraging Diversity

Tremblay: At FIU, we have such diversity in our students that it’s only natural that we have diversity in our faculty. I really did make this a goal when I became department chair.

Cousins: The students at FIU come from almost every country in the world. Our faculty is the same way. When I came here in 2004, there were just two other women. To see that we’re now a female-dominated faculty is really impressive, especially when there are so many obstacles that women face in technology because it’s so male-dominated.

Tremblay: Certainly it’s one of the fields with the most antagonism to women.

Cousins: I did a count of the women in my class today and it was 30 percent— which is still very low. So, yes, we’re in an environment that supports diversity, but there’s so much more to be done.

Some years ago, you and I embarked on a one-year pilot called IT Women Next Gen. You were on the board of IT Women, a group of professional women in Florida whose mandate is to increase the number of women in technology. We worked with IT Women to encourage our students to pursue careers in technology. We had a series of panels where these professional women came and spoke to the students, and at the end of the program, the girls went to a high school and hosted a panel there. We really had a chance to show them this could be a fulfilling, rewarding career.

Tremblay: I feel like the big difference in our major came when people from our department started going to the Introduction to Business class to talk about our major. Suddenly this opened the field to women who maybe never would have considered it. It wasn’t an option.

On Turning Out More Minority PhDs

Cousins: It’s important for minorities to see successful examples in academia. One Saturday I was teaching a healthcare information law class to a group that tends to be very diverse. I was in the elevator with the students when they started asking each other who the professor was and what he was like. None of them knew it was me. When I walked into the classroom and said good morning, they were all embarrassed because they’d thought I was a student.

I think when we have minorities who are academics, they must be made visible—there have to be mechanisms in place for them to share their stories. There have to be mechanisms for them to connect with minority women who might be considering entering academia but don’t know what path to take or that it’s even possible.

Tremblay: I’ve also had people think I was a student, particularly because I teach very technical courses. Do you remember when we were at a conference interviewing for a faculty position, and we actually had four women sitting behind the table [conducting the interviews]? Candidates would walk in and be at a loss for words, because every other interview they’d been to had looked different from this.

“WHAT I’VE FOUND ABOUT MENTORSHIP IS THAT IT’S NOT SOMETHING YOU CAN FORCE. IT’S ORGANIC. THE MENTOR AND MENTEE ARE NATURALLY DRAWN TO EACH OTHER. AND SOMETIMES I DON’T WAIT TO BE APPROACHED BY A MENTEE. I PLAY A VERY PROACTIVE ROLE.”—KARLENE COUSINS

So, I agree. Representation matters. It matters so much in the classroom, because that’s how you engage students and give them that option. Because if they don’t have examples, how are they supposed to consider academia a career choice?

Cousins: The advice I would give to other schools is, this isn’t something that happens by accident. It’s a strategy that comes from the top.

On Facing Obstacles

Tremblay: My favorite story is when I was at my very first day at an industry job, and I was asked to go get coffee. I thought they meant, “Get yourself a cup of coffee,” so I came back with a cup, but they had meant for me to get coffee for everybody.

Times have changed, but there’s still sometimes that undercurrent, and in academia that undercurrent is service. A large amount of service is taken on by women. I think as women, we have to learn to stand our ground and say no more often.

Cousins: At my first job, as a programmer analyst in Jamaica, I was the only woman in the department, and my new boss didn’t have a secretary. You can imagine my dismay when I came to work one morning and saw a note from him asking me to type a letter that he had handwritten. So I wrote my own note that said, “I acknowledge your request, but I was hired to be a programmer analyst. I suggest you hire yourself a secretary.” I don’t know how I was so bold, but I guess this is a lesson in being bold and learning how to say no.

My boss was very gracious about the whole thing, and his reaction was very positive. He realized that, yes, I was a woman, but I should be coding. Sure enough, the following week, he had a secretary. That’s the incident that stands out in my mind.

On Mentoring

Tremblay: I was assigned a mentor through AIS [the Association of Information Systems Council]. She worked at a large urban university, and we had weekly Skype calls. It was so eye-opening and so helpful to be able to say, “Am I nuts? Did I read too much into this?” and to have her say, “No, that’s not appropriate” or “You’re totally overreacting.”

Cousins: When I was at Georgia State, my mentor Dan Robey and I had the same relationship. Whenever I had doubts about what I should do in a difficult situation, he was always there to provide advice. If I was wrong, he would say I was wrong, and if I was right, he would say I was right.

Tremblay: I’ve had every kind of mentor—mentors who were male, mentors who were in industry. It’s so helpful to get the perspective of someone who has been through this and who is in a position of power.

Cousins: You always need a mentor, no matter how advanced in your career you are.

Tremblay: Are you mentoring? I’m entering a stage where I’m mentoring, especially women.

Cousins: What I’ve found about mentorship is that it’s not something you can force. It’s organic. The mentor and the mentee are naturally drawn to each other.

And sometimes I don’t wait to be approached by a mentee. I sometimes step up and say, “Hey, you’re messing up big-time, and you need to rehabilitate yourself by doing X, Y, and zed.” So sometimes I play a very proactive role.

Tremblay: Just recently I told a staff member, “You’re not here to catch everyone else’s mistakes. Stop. If somebody doesn’t come through, it’s not your job to finish it for them.”

On Launching ATOM

Tremblay: This was our baby. Selfishly, I thought of it as a way to deal with AACSB accreditation. I had some faculty who needed consulting experience, and I said, “What if we created a consulting company?”

Cousins: ATOM is a faculty consulting practice that provides experiential learning opportunities for students. But more and more, it’s become a vehicle of engagement—for students, faculty, and the community. Its particular job is to transform small companies through technology, but it also introduces state-of-the-art technologies to larger companies that offload the work that they don’t have time to do.

To date we have provided experiential learning opportunities for almost 30 students in a year and a half. Those opportunities have gotten them jobs and given them exposure to real-life problems that companies might have. They’ve gained critical thinking skills about how to identify problems and how to convey proposed solutions. They’ve learned how to interact with clients.

On Creating Diverse Faculty Rosters

Tremblay: First, we need to generate some female PhDs. In my opinion, women are going to feel more comfortable in an environment where they feel it’s a level playing field, where the support structures are in place, and where they don’t feel alone.

Cousins: There are good men who know how to mentor women and develop them professionally, and they need to step forward. And they should mentor men on how to develop and relate to their female colleagues.

Tremblay: We don’t want diversity just for diversity’s sake. Diversity brings richness of ideas—

Cousins: Creativity, innovation—

Tremblay: Absolutely. Companies that innovate bring diversity to the table—not just of sex and race and ethnicity, but also of backgrounds. We’ve [embraced diversity] in our department, too. We have economists, operations management specialists, and healthcare folks. That has helped enrich our programs and our research.

On What's Next for FIU Business

Cousins: If we could build on our expertise in healthcare and analytics, we could grow in numbers and in diversity. I see our department increasing in strength.

We have a production line that takes students from undergraduate to master’s degrees to PhDs, and then puts them out into the business and academic community.

Watch the video of the entire conversation between Cousins and Tremblay.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's November/December 2017 print issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.