Female Leadership: Where it’s Strong, Where it Can Improve

businesswomen around the globe

Gender issues at business school remain a hot topic in graduate management education, and just this past week, three fascinating articles on the subject have been published. The first is a Bloomberg Businessweek interview with Dean Alison Davis-Blake of University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

As one of only ten female deans at the top 60 business schools, Davis-Blake tells the media outlet that she’s used to being alone at the top. She points out that the reason why the vast majority of deans are men can be traced back to the 1980s, which is when most of today’s deans were in graduate school and women made up a much smaller percentage of students pursuing advanced degrees.

The road to deanship includes many required benchmarks, explains Davis-Blake, from earning a PhD to landing a tenure track job as an assistant professor to eventually making tenure, and then candidates must further distinguish themselves as academic leaders. We currently find very few women at the other side of those hurdles.

While the dean had many male mentors who exposed her to leadership opportunities along the way, Davis-Blake says she hopes women coming up today have something she didn’t: more direct female role models.

Speaking of her mentors, the dean tells Bloomberg, “They might be a lot like me dimensionally, they might think a lot like me, or they might speak a lot like me, but I can’t look at them and say, ‘Oh, that person has the same issues in life that I have.’ Looking at another woman, I can say that I see myself more in that person. Having more women deans around allows people to say, ‘Yeah, I could do this’.”

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Female numbers in MBA programs were miniscule 30 years ago, but the demographics are changing, and many top business schools have enrolled up to 40% women in the Class of 2016. Women make up 37% of the Yale School of Management Class of 2016, down 2 percentage points from last year, but there are still healthy signs of strong female leadership at the school.

A new story in the Yale Daily News  reports that earlier this month, the SOM student body elected its fourth female student body president in a row, calling this a sign of increasing female involvement and diversity at the business school.

Brittan Berry (MBA ’16), who was just elected for the position, says the SOM’s dedication to diversity contributes to this continuity in female leadership, adding, ““I think the SOM is continuously moving forward in its mission to become one of the most diverse business schools.”

According to current student government president Alexa Allen (MBA ’15), about half of all leadership positions at the SOM are occupied by women, and that “diversity is the norm.” Former president Caitlin Sullivan (MBA ’13) concurs, noting that “although her class at the SOM was about 35 percent women, the women within the school exhibited disproportionate influence because of the leadership positions they occupied.”

If this trend at Yale SOM (and elsewhere) continues to grow, Dean Davis-Blake will be able to rest easy about having sufficient female role models for the next generation of women leaders.

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Whereas traditional two-year MBA programs are making notable strides to achieve parity in female enrollment, a new article in Fortune reports that is far from the case at executive MBA programs offered at the country’s top business schools.

Harvard Business School’s two-year MBA program is made up of 41% women; the EMBA enrolls 24%. At MIT Sloan School of Management, the figure in their executive program is about 17%. And while the Wharton School declined to offer specifics, the school’s vice dean of executive education Monica McGrath told Fortune that although the two-year program had almost 50% female enrollment, “In executive education, it’s not even close to that. It’s a problem, for sure.”

In short, notes the article’s author Katherine Noyes, “Exec-ed programs skew male because, unfortunately, C-suite offices still skew male.”

And so it goes back to the problems Dean Allison Davis-Blake laid out above. Executive education programs are designed for professionals who have been in the workforce for ten-plus years, and that’s where the numbers for women begin their decline.

The outlook is not all doom and gloom though. With the approaching parity we’re seeing in two-year MBA programs, in another 20 years this issue of imbalance may be nothing more than a relic of the past.

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