Women as Leaders

To see women as leaders in the corporate world, first train them as leaders at b-school.
Women as Leaders

IN BUSINESS, WOMEN ARE STILL very much on the sidelines. Despite reports of women making a greater impact at the top levels of industry, at the beginning of 2016 there were just six female CEOs listed among FTSE 100 companies. Similarly, women only accounted for 15 percent of all board seats globally, according to a report from Deloitte earlier this year.

It’s a vicious cycle: The fewer role models women see in business, the less likely they are to apply to business school. And those women who do attend business school and aspire to top jobs may drop out at the mid-manager level due to a lack of guidance, a lack of support, or a lack of knowledge that would better position them for more senior roles.

The solution is to reset the perspective of business leadership at an early stage—while women are still in business school. However, business schools still trail behind other graduate schools and universities in general when it comes to gender parity. This is partly due to the prevailing assumptions that business and management roles are the domain of men and that business schools should be their domain as well. Therefore, not only do we need to enroll more women in business school, we need to create initiatives that will develop their leadership abilities and help them pursue successful careers.

Imperial College Business School in London, where I used to work, enacts a variety of simple strategies designed to provide female students with powerful voices and identities both inside and beyond the classroom. As a result, the school’s numbers of female students remain consistently high (for instance, women made up 45 percent of the 2015–2016 MBA class). Other schools could follow the same strategies as they strive to develop female leaders:

Involve men in women’s leadership activities. While Women in Leadership networks give women support systems and platforms, such networks typically are run by women for women. Just as all-male boards can prevent women from joining the wider discussion, all-female leadership groups do very little to push the cause for equality.

For instance, until recently I led Imperial’s application for the Athena Swan award, which is given out by the Equality Challenge Unit to recognize the advancement of women in STEM roles throughout higher education. After we attained our bronze award last year, I handed the reins to the associate dean of undergraduate programs, Edgar Meyer—both to broaden the number of equality champions within the business school and to have a male colleague lead the charge.

Through the actions of our alumni, we’ve seen evidence that our activities are having an impact on industry. Swiss Re, a global reinsurer that has invested heavily in diversity and inclusion, has piloted a reverse mentoring scheme in which junior male leaders are paired with more senior female leaders and vice versa. The objective is to break down traditional gender biases and overcome inherent biases related to leadership styles. The program is run under the advisement of a graduate from Imperial’s Masters in Management program.

Allow students to lead. Business schools must put women in leadership positions from the start. Imperial’s Deans’ Student Advisory Council is led by an elected body of students across 15 programs, and the school stipulates that 50 percent of the student representatives must be female. The school stresses a need for gender parity throughout the election process, actively encourages female participation, and goes back to the student cohorts if their election slate does not have adequate female representation.

Is this positive discrimination? Absolutely. But if we are going to reach gender parity as quickly as possible, we need to make decisions that push the boundaries. If men and women experience parity at school, they are more likely to mirror that experience in the workforce and develop expectations about how their careers—and those of their colleagues—should progress.

Invest in student development. It’s important for schools to offer their female students scholarships and job opportunities, but they should look for additional opportunities as well—even ones that might not provide an immediate return on investment.

For example, Imperial is funding a series of professional development seminars on unconscious bias, maternity and paternity, positive difference, and salary negotiation. The school runs sessions multiple times in as many formats as possible to capture the attention of as many students it can.

In addition, last year Imperial provided the funding that allowed three students to travel to the U.S. to attend the annual Forté Foundation conference. The event offered those students not only inspiration, but also the chance to connect with an extensive professional women’s network. This year the school also enabled some of its male students—those who are leading the way in championing gender parity—to attend the conference as well.

Through such gestures, schools can instill a sense of “paying it forward” in their students. Because they have received this level of support in the foundation of their careers, these women and men are likely to provide similar support to others further down the line. Such initiatives also allow schools to “put their money where their mouths are.” When school leaders believe in something, they find the resources to make it happen.

Schools that facilitate such activities are likely to see the effects in their alumni’s actions. For example, Obelisk is a legal support provider that prides itself on its “human first” approach. It offers flexible working arrangements for parents; it also runs refresher sessions for employees returning after career breaks as a way to help them build confidence and competence. Obelisk was co-founded by Imperial College Business School alumna Dana Denis-Smith.

Just as all-male boards can prevent women from joining the wider discussion, all-female leadership groups do very little to push the cause for equality.

Present gender-balanced communications. This balance needs to be achieved whether the school is reporting on faculty or describing alumni activities—but it’s a challenge, because both groups tend to have an uneven ratio of senior males to senior females. But business school leaders must always be aware of the image they present externally. Their task, as the influencers of future industry, is to ensure that gender equality is top of mind for both male and female leaders within the school.

At Imperial, one of the favored tools for getting the message out in an impactful yet humorous way is to note that the school doesn’t want to end up on the Tumblr thread that’s titled “Congrats, you have an all-male panel!” (See it for yourself at allmalepanels.tumblr.com.)

Recruit female influencers. Many business schools do a good job of sharing news of high-achieving alumni, but they’re not as good at telling the stories of how these individuals attained their positions as they climbed the ladder. Schools can have a large impact by taking simple steps such as arranging for successful female alumni to share their career journeys with current students by hosting talks or acting as mentors.

I’ve seen that approach at Swiss Re, which connects females at different stages of their careers so they can share personal experiences around common career obstacles. This mentoring approach also helps women develop a business network early in their careers.

Imperial College Business School has recognized that it will not achieve gender parity at the school or in the workplace unless these discussions take place within its own walls and within the wider community. School leaders also recognize that business schools must expand the minds of all their students by promoting diversity of background, culture, and gender. Business schools have an obligation to make education approachable for all.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's November/December 2017 print issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

Diane Morgan is the former associate dean of programmes at Imperial College Business School in London, and she currently serves as the global managing director at Trilogy Education Services. Morgan also is on the board of the Forté Foundation.