With the addition of Marillyn Hewson (Lockheed Martin) and Marissa Mayer (Yahoo!) to the roster of female CEOs, women are celebrating the milestone of having reached the highest number of women in CEO positions within the Fortune 500 -- a whopping 21 (4 percent). If we investigate our inability to move past this startling statistic, we would arrive at the same root causes: 1) most organizations lack the infrastructure to support diversity in leadership; 2) a dearth of suitable mentors; and the old favorite 3) the business world is one big boys' club to which only a select few will ever be invited.
Top MBA programs serve as the most critical (and expected) pipelines for producing business leaders. More often than not, presidents and C-level execs come from finance, operations or internal strategy/business development (marketing organizations and CMO roles being the exception) functions. And we're finally seeing women business leaders in industries other than retail and consumer goods (not that there were many before, but it was the CEO road most oft traveled if you were female). My point? Lack of female leadership is a systemic issue and institutions must continue to work to create more balance in business leadership. Arguably, it starts as early as the first year of business school. Female MBA students need to more frequently pursue the roles and be educated in the skills and unwritten rules that will allow us to participate in wealth creation.
Women represent 31 percent of the population amongst top business schools as estimated by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), with Wharton (University of Pennsylvania) boasting the highest percentage of women in last year's incoming class at 45 percent. Yet, when we look at the percentage of women who specialize in, and ultimately pursue, careers in finance, operations, strategy, business law (versus areas such as marketing and organizational management), we continue to see a staggering underrepresentation of women. This disparity matters, as it will reduce our chances of reaching top-level positions.
As business schools work to respond to the need for more women leaders by recruiting more female candidates, they also need to adequately prepare these women for reaching the maximum potential in their careers. The first step is to offer women in business leadership as a core course as part of the curriculum for first-year MBA women.
Currently, only a handful of business schools -- Stern (NYU), Darden (UVA), HBS (Harvard) -- offer courses that focus on women in leadership. The latter two are at the Executive MBA level, which is too late in the career development process. Even then, they typically boast curricula that "promote proactive business leadership, including marketing innovation, organizational effectiveness, service excellence, and negotiation," as in the case of the 4-day Women's Leadership Forum at Harvard Business School. We have established that women have a tendency to pursue careers in marketing. And yes, negotiation is important. But certainly, there's room for these programs to include courses that have a higher correlation with attaining significant leadership roles, such as data-driven decision-making, cultivating an executive presence, leveraging being female in male dominated environments, and knowing how to pursue a career of passion that also yields a meaningful paycheck.
The second step is offering formal 1-on-1 mentorship opportunities. Many women are not pursuing career paths that lead to senior leadership positions because they lack sufficient exposure to said career paths. An industry or function-specific mentor would help demystify recruiting for and thriving in intimidating, male-dominated fields like investment banking or hedge fund management, and show that there are potentially fulfilling career options outside of marketing. (Having pursued a career in beauty marketing after earning my MBA from Stern, I can say this firsthand.)
The third step is building valuable women networks. Women advocating for other women (particularly in high-status work environments) is critical, and the networks that have been built on this theory (such as Stern Women in Business [SWIB] at NYU), often play a meaningful role in attracting female talent to business schools. Admittedly, I was not an active member of SWIB during my time at Stern. But in my somewhat distant experience, the organization -- and ones like it -- did a great job in bringing women together, and establishing a platform for networking and generating contacts. Where it failed was in real career development and in moving the conversation further than the ever-present work-life balance "dilemma." Outside of the occasional "Woman on Wall Street" talk and the club's annual conference, the group seemed mostly social in nature. (I think they actually held a bake sale back when I was a student... )
So, how useful are the SWIBs of the world and what role do organizations like this actually play in female leadership development, and in what students are learning that they can use in the real world? Their effectiveness relies heavily on their ability to reinforce the potential power of these high-status female networks and to teach members to leverage their "social and professional capital" to benefit the career advancement of other women. Without them, we diminish our collective power to make real progress.
We simply have to do a better job in supporting the mission of emerging women leaders by taking an active role in their development. Enough with talking about how to learn how to play the cards we're dealt. Let's instead figure out how to draw a better hand.
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