Refueling the Pipeline of Women Leaders: A Call to Action

While women now earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the number and percentage of women pursuing business education has declined markedly for undergraduate degrees and stalled for master’s degrees.

Business education is a critical pipeline for preparing our future organizational leaders. We award 20 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and 25 percent of all master’s degrees. What we do in our schools to build and shape the pool of future leadership talent has a material impact.

Yet, in the last 10 years in the U.S., we have witnessed a disturbing counter trend in business education with respect to the enrollment of women in higher education. While women now earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the number and percentage of women pursuing business education has declined markedly for undergraduate degrees and stalled for master’s degrees.

Data from AACSB-accredited schools in the U.S. between 2003–04 and 2013–14 show that the enrollment of women in business programs dropped by 4 percent while total student undergraduate enrollments actually increased by 5 percent. Business degrees actually conferred to women declined by 19 percent. Today the percentage of undergraduate degrees in business awarded to women has reached a low of 42 percent. At the master’s level, the percentage of conferred degrees awarded to women has also decreased (figure 1).

Source: AACSB BSQ controlled data set. N= 319 schools in 2003–04; 304 schools in 2013–14.


Reversing these downward trends in female enrollment should be a top priority of business school deans and senior leadership. Collectively, our actions today will impact the quality and diversity of the leaders of the future. AACSB and the White House recently released a joint statement reinforcing this call to action.

Expanding the pool of women pursuing and securing organizational leadership roles has been an abiding commitment of mine. I served as dean at two business schools—Simmons College and Mills College—where this goal was at the heart of our mission. Today I am a new dean working strategically to address this challenge on a much larger scale at the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire. Here women comprise 37 percent of both our 2,500 undergraduates and our 240 graduate students. Paralleling national trends, the percentage of women in business programs at our college has declined in recent years. For me, reversing this trend is a top leadership priority.


Business schools should model the values that we believe are important to the success of work organizations now and in the future. We should embed these values within our curricular and co-curricular programs. And, we should cultivate these values in our students.

For me, the goal to increase female enrollment in business education reflects the fundamental value of equity of opportunity for all employees based on a meritocracy that is not distorted by overt or unconscious bias. It also reflects the value I place on optimizing organizational excellence.

These values of equity and organizational excellence are mutually reinforcing. Numerous studies have shown a positive correlation between the level of women’s representation in leadership roles and organizational performance. A widely cited 2000 study of Fortune 500 companies by Catalyst shows that companies with the highest representation of women had a 35-percent higher return on equity compared to those with the lowest representation. Similarly, a McKinsey & Company 2010 study of large companies in Europe and BRIC countries, Women at the Top of Corporations, shows that companies with top-quartile representation of women in the executive committees of their boards outperformed companies with no women by 41 percent on return to equity and 56 percent on operating results.

Yet, despite the increasing awareness of the positive relationship between diversity and inclusion and innovation and effectiveness in organizations, change in the gender composition of leadership teams has been glacially slow. Today, the representation of women among CEOs in Fortune 500 companies is only 5 percent; the percentage of women among corporate officers is 15 percent; and the percentage of women holding board seats is 17 percent. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the statistics for women in leadership in large nonprofits and the public sector are not much better.

To best serve our students, the employers who rely on us for talent, and our society, we need to refortify our efforts to attract more women of diverse backgrounds into business education and to ensure that they have the skills and unencumbered pathways to enter business and rise to the top based on their merit.


As business school deans responsible for preparing the next generation of business managers and leaders, it is incumbent upon us to provide leadership in reversing the downward trend in female enrollment and refueling the pipeline for women in leadership. Here are some strategic initiatives we can foster. A full document of best practices is available on AACSB’s Diversity and Inclusion web page.

  • We need to begin with our own organizations. We should model diversity and inclusion and be explicit in our leadership communications about the relationship between diversity and inclusion and innovation and organizational excellence. Today, only 22 percent of deans and 19 percent of full professors in AACSB-accredited business schools in the U.S. are women. We need to be intentional in fostering gender diversity in faculty and administrative leadership. This will help ensure that our students—both male and female—will have female role models and can experience directly the benefits of diversity in leadership.
  • We need to reexamine our curriculum, pedagogy, and classroom cultures. Business schools can play a critical role in educating our male and female students about the value of diversity and inclusion and teaching the strategies and skills they need for managing and building their careers successfully in organizations that are increasingly diverse.

  • Our students and faculty should be introduced to the concept of identity-based implicit or unconscious bias and have opportunities to reflect on the implications of this for their own behavior and leadership development. Integral to this effort is to ensure that we and our faculty do not replicate unconscious bias by over-representing men as business leaders in our case studies, guest speakers, mentors, and honored alumni. For example, Harvard Business School (HBS), as part of its gender equity initiative, has announced recently that it will increase the proportion of case studies it publishes with female protagonists from 9 percent to 20 percent.

    In its own gender initiative, HBS introduced a computerized system to track classroom participation as a means to mitigate unconscious bias among faculty in calling on students and/or recording students’ participation accurately. They also worked directly with women MBA students to develop strategies for increasing their participation and impact on classroom discussions.

    At a more macro level, we need to encourage and support our female students to pursue careers in sectors that remain male dominated (e.g., finance, IT, analytics) as well as ensure that our curricula are strong in areas that attract more women (e.g., marketing, accounting, organizational behavior, and socially responsible business).

  • We need to team with our career services and our employer partners. We can prioritize recruiters who have demonstrated visible commitments to diversity and recruiting women. We can also encourage our staff in career education to engage both men and women in discussions about managing career and family responsibilities. It is important to interrupt the idea that work/family integration is a singularly women’s issue.
  • Fundamentally, we cannot be complacent. As the recent gender initiative at HBS has shown, addressing gender issues explicitly and intentionally can positively impact business school culture, student enrollments, and student outcomes. HBS Dean Nitin Nohria has placed gender equity at the center of his leadership agenda. He argues in Poets & Quants, “Tackling deep-seated issues that affect not just business education, but business and society more broadly, necessitates sustained commitment. It requires courage to take action, and humility to recognize that the road will be long and may include missteps.”

Let’s take up the White House’s call for AACSB schools to reinvigorate this transformative agenda and lead the way. Let’s take meaningful and comprehensive action to refuel and sustain the pipeline of women leaders. And, let’s recommit to our responsibility to educate the next generation of male and female leaders—leaders who not only understand the power of diversity and inclusion for the success of their organizations and the societies in which they operate but who also have the will and courage to make it happen.

Deborah Merrill-Sands is Dean of the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire. Merrill-Sands came to Paul College from Mills College’s Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business, where she served as dean from 2010 to 2015. Prior to that, Merrill-Sands held several leadership positions at the School of Management of Simmons College, including dean, acting dean, and associate dean. While at Simmons, she also co-founded and co-directed the Center for Gender in Organizations and served as program director of the Simmons Institute for Leadership and Change. Merrill-Sands is the author of numerous journal articles, monographs, and book chapters. Her research focuses on diversity and gender dynamics in the workplace, women and leadership, organizational effectiveness, and leading change. Merrill-Sands has consulted widely on gender equity organizational change initiatives and for six years she led a comprehensive gender change initiative for the CGIAR consortium of international agricultural research centers.