Advancing women and diversity in our companies is something most senior executives know to be important for a variety of reasons.  It tends to lead to higher financial returns as measured by returns on equity and operating results. It fosters greater creativity in the workplace and closer connections with customers.

Joyce E.A. Russell (University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business) Joyce E.A. Russell (University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business)

Still, progress is slow. Catalyst, a nonprofit organization devoted to accelerating progress for women through workplace inclusion, reported rather dismal findings in a 2015 study of board director positions in the S&P 500 firms:

• Men held 80.1 percent of S&P 500 board seats, while women only held 19.9 percent
• Men held 73.1 percent of new directorships, while women only held 26.9 percent
• 2.8 percent of companies had zero women directors; 24.6 percent had one woman; and only 14.2 percent of companies had 30 percent or more women on their boards

Deborah Gillis, president and CEO of Catalyst, said in a statement, “Our new Census shows little progress has been made at the board level, and even less progress has been made in the pipeline for women officers and directors—suggesting women are nowhere near the path to parity with men. Men continue to be overrepresented, holding more than their fair share of board seats and, in some cases, all the board seats. Unfortunately, these data indicate that the United States stands in stark contrast to other countries where intentional, bold action is being taken by businesses and governments to accelerate meaningful, sustainable change. U.S. companies are missing opportunities to achieve gender diversity.”

What will it take to get more women into higher levels of business administration? One solution would be to have more women professionally trained in business through education. And yet, progress in business schools has been slow, too. While schools award more than 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees to women, the number of those women pursing degrees in business has been declining or stayed stagnant. The percentage of women students and faculty hovers around the 30 percent to 40 percent mark for most business schools, and the number of senior women faculty or administrators is smaller. And don’t even bring up the percent of persons of color among business students, especially graduate students, and among faculty or administrators in business schools. It is significantly lower.

It was one year ago when at the White House, I saw senior officials call upon AACSB International, the accrediting body and membership association for business schools worldwide, to advance a newly formed set of best practices for business schools. Having attended the meeting, it was great to witness the creation of a partnership between senior White House officials and more than 150 top leaders from businesses and business schools in order to carefully develop a set of best practices. The best practices can be seen in more detail at aacsb.edu/diversity.

The best practices encourage business schools to address today’s challenges in four areas:

• Ensuring access to business school and business careers
• Building a business school environment that prepares students for the workforce of tomorrow
• Ensuring career services that go beyond the needs of traditional students, and
• Exemplifying how organizations should be run.

To push business schools to take diversity more seriously, AACSB has made diversity and inclusion part of its Vision Initiative, and business school leaders – including myself — have been sharing best practices at conferences. But much more needs to be done.

For us to make a significant dent in having more senior women business leaders, we need to grow the pipeline. This means, we must get more women interested in business as a career. We need to start sooner to get girls (as young as possible) thinking about business or entrepreneurship as a career calling. We need them to see that business can be a noble profession where they can truly “do good” and make an impact on the world today.

But more than this, our business schools need to model best practices by training our faculty, staff and students on biases and micro-aggressions; by hiring, training and promoting individuals based on their performance and not on their backgrounds; we need to encourage women to pursue careers in male-dominated business fields such as finance, IT and analytics; and we need to make sure that the curriculums we use in our programs showcase all types of individuals (women, men, persons of color, etc.) as prominent leaders.

One year later, more schools are committed to the best practices created in the partnership of businesses, business schools, AACSB, and the White House, but more business schools need to become signatories to highlight their commitment. As business schools, to make future changes in organizations, we need to be accountable for pushing ourselves to make change happen if we really want to be a best place for all types of students, staff, and faculty, and if we truly want to impact what our companies of tomorrow will look like.

Joyce E. A. Russell is an industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management, and negotiations. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu or joyce.russell@villanova.edu.