Business schools: more diversity in the classrooms

“We cannot find the right female profile to become our [insert a top position here],is an excuse – if it ever was such – soon to become outdated. Or that, when used, will unmask purposeful fabrications. In the past few years, women have been enrolling on business schools in numbers never seen before. And that means that more and more (and more) female professionals are ready to lead a company, a division or a team.

If it was ever needed, now more and more (and more) have all the certifications to prove it. To be clear, that should not have not even been the case. But, to be honest, when choosing a profile for top positions, the double standards applied to men and women still stand firm. And female leaders need to prove their competencies, determination, effectiveness and expertise much (much) more than their male colleagues.

Change is in the making

While 20 years ago, women represented less than 28% of American MBA students – the US was already advanced in gender balance in these classrooms – today, around 50% of the top 20 institutions have achieved equality among their current enrolled students. This month Oxford Saïd Business School celebrated this achievement in the academic year 2022-2023. For the first time in the school’s 26-years history, its Master in Business Administration has the largest female-to-male participant ratio, marking it one of the best gender-balanced cohorts in the world. A front runner among European institutions.

Of course, things are more nuanced than what percentages tell. But undeniably, it is not by chance or magic that the trend has been consolidating recently. Most of the best-performing institutions in terms of diversity have been working for some time to boost (at least gender) equality in their classrooms. As Kathy Harvey, Associate Dean of MBA and Executive Degrees at Saïd Business School, puts it: “To achieve that ratio of female MBA students is a testament to our mission to prepare the next generation of female leaders and to end gender inequality once and for all.” Because aiming at high levels of gender balance is one admirable goal, but a broader commitment to diversity must be fostered to reach it.

Learn and earn

The opportunities offered by obtaining an MBA are well recognised. Enrolling in a business school and completing a business program can and often does impact careers and earning perspectives. With the pandemic hitting hard everybody at all levels but women in particular, many have looked to the prospects to educate themselves further to enter or re-enter the labour market. Looking at business schools, that has meant an increased number of female students. But also thanks to the expansion of DEI initiatives and widespread scholarships explicitly directed to women – one example being the Forté Foundation, that since 2003 has been providing funds, leadership programs, conferences and webinars to prepare prospective MBA female students.

The trend sustained by broader attention to equality is also fuelled by the shared idea that diversity in the business schools’ classrooms contributes to progress toward a more equitable and inclusive economy. Better attention to diversity in the new hires and the companies’ culture, in general, can mutually influence each other.

Beyond the classroom

Equality helps individuals and benefits companies and society. Organisations with better levels of diversity reach better results – as explored here. Then it is a good sign that diversity is steadily increasing in the 100 top business schools. Still, there is room for improvement, especially in the composition of faculties and governing boards. Increased numbers of female students are just one part of the needed change.

Representation in all aspects of a student’s life does matter, and the lack of it has consequences already in the classrooms. According to Harvard Business Review, “female students speak up more and have higher aspirations when they see women in leadership positions.” And it then continues to affect women’s career paths, from the gender pay gap to hiring practices to appointment to top positions.

In the US this year, the percentage of female CEOs reached double-digit (10% of the Fortune 500 companies) while Europe still lacks a bit behind, at 7% (but has reached 35% in 2021 as per women on boards.) No great numeric improvements, all considered. But yet, new generations of women leaders are in the making. And more importantly, from the initiative to support MBA students to pledges and effective actions within the companies, a whole system is in motion.

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