Encouraging Women Into The Boardroom

Getting women into the boardroom

It is 2082. Under Chinese sovereign fund ownership, Greece has been transformed into a giant theme park devoted to European antiquity, Apple and Facebook have replaced passports with the biographical iPad 12, and in UK boardrooms there are equal numbers of men and women at last. Given current evidence, only the final prediction sounds far-fetched.

A recent British government survey stated that men occupy 85% of FTSE 100 boardroom seats, and that at the current rate it would take a further 70 years to achieve true gender balance in the UK’s C-suite. The report went on to recommend that by 2015 all FTSE 350 companies should aim to have a minimum representation of 25% women in the boardroom. The story is roughly the same throughout Europe. Germany is aiming for 30% by 2015, and France has set an even more ambitious target of 40% by 2017.

But how are Europe’s businesses, and those in the rest of the world, preparing women for careers at the top? For many of the men in the C-suite, executive education has played a key role in their ascension, whether through a full-time or Executive MBA, or the many advanced management courses available at leading business schools.

Shouldn’t the same be true for women? It appears not. In the most recent Financial Times ranking of executive education, 48% of business schools reported having fewer than one in three women in their open enrolment courses. And data from the Graduate Management Admissions Council shows that women account for only a third of applicants to MBA programmes. It seems that the lack of women at boardroom level is mirrored by their under-representation in business education programmes.

For those who thought we had moved on from the boys’ club approach, it seems that issues beyond talent and effort are now dissuading women from breaking through the glass ceiling.

A research paper on the challenges women face in leadership positions, by Laura Guillén at Berlin’s European School of Management and Technology, says that the perception of females in power may be partly to blame. “Women now have to face a ‘second generation’ of gender bias,” she says. “This manifests itself in views ranging from the incompatibility of childcare and domestic tasks with the hours necessary for a career at the top, to the perception that displaying leadership behaviours is desirable in men but not in women. And these biases hold the power to influence how women feel about themselves.”

So, what are business schools doing to help rectify this? In the Netherlands, the Rotterdam School of Management recently sent students from its full-time and executive OneMBA programmes on an all-women trek up Kilimanjaro to help them break down perceptions of their limitations. Associate dean Dianne Bevelander, who conceived the idea, says participants must learn to live with discomfort. “Those are the conditions that future leaders face, and we want to prepare them for the real world.”

She cites the importance of a support network, as climbing the corporate ladder can be lonely. “It’s tough if you are just one women in isolation on a board. You can create a virtuous circle if the individual is able to work closely with other high-achieving women, so students on the climb are interviewed three years later to see if they are still networking and supporting each other.”

Other schools have recognised the importance of gender support and are creating networks within the student body. The Melbourne Business School, for instance, has developed a ‘Women and Management’ network for students and alumni, to discuss issues faced by women in management and to educate the wider business community. The school invites guest speakers such as Catriona Noble, managing director and CEO of McDonald’s Australia, to show what can be achieved. The restaurant chain’s Aussie operation is unusual in having around 50% female representation at every level, including senior management and the board.

Melbourne has also introduced a specialist scholarship targeted at female managers, who often show greater risk adversity when it comes to investing in business education, or put their own career needs behind those of male partners when deciding who will go back to school to get an MBA. Womensphere, a global community of leaders, organisations and companies focused on female talent and opportunity, is similarly working with Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and HEC Paris to offer scholarships for their open enrolment and Executive MBA programmes.

Those women who do take the plunge are realistic about the challenge but are rewarded for their efforts.

Zoe Farmer, a graduate of the EMBA programme at Ashridge Business School in the UK, says: “When I started the programme I was both five months pregnant and hitting the glass ceiling at my current employer, so it wasn’t an easy undertaking. I had to be hugely organised and allow for any curveballs that came my way. I put in 30 hours a week, every week, and although it was hard work, the benefits have been worth it. I landed my current job as head of in-terminal commercial at BAA Stansted after graduating, and I really believe that the EMBA gave me the edge over every other candidate.”

However, Elissa Sangster, CEO of the Forté Foundation – an association of corporations and business schools that promotes the role of women in leadership – says that, while business schools have a vital role to play, the wider business community still needs to cultivate an environment in which female graduates can flourish. “It isn’t simply a case of getting talented women into business,” she says. “It’s a question of keeping them there and giving them the correct opportunities.”

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