The role of business schools in improving diversity in the workplace

April 27

What are the opportunities and challenges around advancing women into positions of leadership in business? What should business schools do about them?

Recently, I joined Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, and 13 deans of leading business schools at the White House. The purpose was “to discuss the best practices for business schools to prepare their students for the increasing importance of women in the labor force and the prevalence of employees with families where all parents work.”

The discussion took a rather free-wheeling path. I noted a number of interesting points — rather than quoting the attendees or paraphrasing the discussion points I offer some in the form of questions for future consideration:

In the entire field, there remains a relatively small percentage of case studies that feature women protagonists. What percentage should we aim for? Given that [business case study] content turns over 20 percent per year, how soon should be expect to see significant curriculum change?

Should we take gender off the table? Men vs. women is too binary, when what we should do is to consider what all leaders need in coaching and development. Can we “take gender off the table”? The best research in leadership indicates that effective leadership behaviors and the stages of leadership development are not gender-specific, but are in part because of socialization. Women and men may practice leadership (or be perceived) in different ways. The compelling question is, what do all leaders need in coaching and development? How does gender affect leadership development?

Leadership development requires that we reach out earlier in the pipeline of professional development. If you ask undergraduate students when they decided to become business majors, boys will say “high school,” and girls will say “college.” What will it take to help young women to crystallize their aspirations earlier?

Feedback in gateway courses motivates women differently from men: A ‘B’ in introductory accounting will drive women into marketing; men might get a ‘B’ and still go into investment banking. How can we frame early-stage feedback in ways that doesn’t peremptorily drive women out of certain fields?

Business is the biggest undergraduate major in the United States, with about 50 percent women. MBA programs are about 33 percent women. Is the challenge of recruiting women into MBA programs a lifecycle issue around child-bearing? Could we also improve our facilities to support women with young kids or that are pregnant with flexible class schedules and child care?

Re-entry after child-bearing is difficult and fraught with anxieties. The woman wonders: Am I capable, ready and valued? Here’s where emphasis on skills (to build confidence) and mentoring (to handle anxiety) can make a huge difference. She can’t go from zero to 60 in one step; it takes a process of lengthening, frequency and deepening of contact. The challenge for business schools is to consider how they can prepare and help alumnae re-enter the workforce following time away to have children.

The pay gap requires more transparency and research. Women and men negotiate for pay differently. The issue of negotiation must be broadened to include advocacy and self-promotion. We don’t see enough of advocacy, not just on pay, but also on achievement and career advancement.

Is retention more about values than pay? Forty percent of women in computer science leave because they don’t like the climate in that field. Trust in business is at an all-time low. Do women prefer to work in purpose-driven organizations? Do traditional business organization climates drive women away?

Extraordinary women leaders don’t simply spring out of thin air. It takes decades of training and experience to develop strong leaders. Schools have a vital role to play. Even modest increases in the enrollment of women can have a transformational impact on the character and culture of the educational program. As Voltaire said, “God is on the side of big battalions.” The more women who are present, the greater their impact. Simply increasing the numbers of women MBA graduates (the “output”) requires many more applicants (the “input”). Why women aren’t flocking to graduate business schools is the subject of many theories and rather less research. My guess is that more financial aid and better messaging would help to build the volume — and ultimate impact.

The growing diversity of enterprises is a wake-up call to all leaders. Standing still is not an option.

Robert F. Bruner is dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. This column was adapted from his blog.

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