Women in Business and the Role of Business Schools

“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”
– Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook)


Last week, I reflected a lot on the implications for management education from growing gender equality. And how I spent my time last week will tell you why.

On Monday, colleagues and I met with two admirals from the U.S. Navy to start a dialogue on a range of deep human resources questions, most of which grow out of the increasing diversity of people in the service. The U.S. military has led the liberalization of American society, at least since President Harry Truman desegregated the military after World War II. Today, with the collapse of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the advent of women into combat positions, the military is again spearheading change for the rest of American society. This will challenge old attitudes. For instance, women will begin serving on fast attack submarines in January 2015. With women on shipboard in very close quarters, the respect for differences will need to be a paramount value in support of the team and its mission. The Navy wants to instill a culture of respect for gender differences.

That same day, I hosted Lorna Donatone, Chief Operating Officer and President of Sodexo Education. She leads Sodexo’s business at nearly 500 public school districts and at more than 850 college and university campuses, overseeing the work of more than 70,000 employees. She has worked to develop Sodexo’s Employee Network Groups, demonstrating her commitment to diversity, inclusion, mentorship and training managers and employees.

On Tuesday, I met with UVA President Terry Sullivan to discuss faculty appointments. She is a courageous and wise leader. And she is a great ally in recruiting diverse colleagues.



On Wednesday, 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.”


On Wednesday and Thursday, in the boring interstices of commercial airplane travel, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Very well-written, inspiring, and provocative, the book argues that women are conditioned to “lean away” from professional confrontations in which they would have positive impact were they to seize their place in professional life. This book has important lessons for business educators and leaders.

So, connect the dots of my week: gender diversity is top-of-mind for prominent leaders. It has been on my mind as well: what are the opportunities and challenges around advancing women into positions of leadership in business? What should business schools do about them? While these are big questions, at the White House meeting of deans the other deans raised even more questions about how business schools can play a role in furthering women in business. The answers aren’t simple, but bear with the discussion that follows.

The White House Meeting of Deans

This was framed as a 90-minute discussion among the Deans of business schools at Harvard, Virginia (Darden), Northwestern (Kellogg), Michigan (Ross), Cornell (Johnson), Texas (McCombs), NYU (Stern), Berkeley (Haas), UCLA (Anderson), UNC (Kenan-Flagler), Emory (Goizueta), Carnegie Mellon (Tepper), and Yale. The Deans included four women and ten men. Shortly before the meeting, we were given a list of discussion topics and questions, any area of which would be the focus for a full-day’s conversation—the headline topics were these:

  • Business school timing and the lifecycle: Given the typical profile of a business school student—5 years of post-college professional experience—means that they are often considering having children shortly after finishing their MBA and many may feel that they must postpone having children to get enough years of post-MBA experience. Is this issue raising challenges for female students? Is it raising challenges for men who are increasingly likely to be active co-parents?
  • Retention: Failing to retain female talent is a growing challenge for businesses. It is also a growing problem among men whose obligations regarding work-family balance are shifting. Is there a role for business schools in helping alumni stay connected to their careers? Or to help them reenter after a period out?
  • Pay gaps and career success: How can business schools help address the pay gap between men and women with MBA degrees?
  • Culture: Research has found that women are less likely to re-frame ethical dilemmas to their advantage and instead see them as ethical issues (Kray and Haselhuhn 2012). They also find that women associate business with immorality more than men do. Is there a role for ethics training in helping men and women have more similar outlooks on ethical dilemmas? Are there better ways to teach ethics to make business more welcoming to women?
  • Leadership: How do you broaden the vision of leadership for all students, male and female?
  • Curriculum: How are men and women portrayed in course materials? Has your curriculum adapted to reflect the modern workforce and workplace challenges?

The discussion took a rather free-wheeling path of its own: we touched on some of the agenda questions, but did not reach alignment of opinion. Valerie Jarrett promised the development of a white paper about best practices that would become available to all business schools. I noted a number of interesting points–rather than quoting the attendees or paraphrasing the discussion points I offer them in the form of questions for future consideration. Given the diversity of views at the meeting, readers of this blog will find these points debatable, as I do.

  • 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 case content turns over 20% 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 (Kouzes and Posner) and the stages of leadership development (Joiner and Josephs) are not gender-specific, but are due in part to 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?
  • Do we really need to teach women to talk more like men? Shouldn’t we teach everyone to talk without bias? And shouldn’t we celebrate individuality?
  • Isn’t the issue really about diversity and inclusion, rather than gender? What role does gender play in the diversity and inclusion conversation?
  • The biggest diversity problem is not the difference of genders, but social class. MBA programs draw mainly from the upper middle class. Shouldn’t we commit to enrolling more women from the bottom quartile of the economic scale?
  • 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?
  • What does it mean to be a leader? If we equate “leader” with “CEO,” the majority of leaders today are men; it doesn’t mean that they are great leaders. What do we really know about traditional characteristics of leadership? Do such characteristics include empathy and the ability to listen, the ability to question assumptions and ask big questions? [1]
  • Undergraduate business is the biggest major in the U.S., with about 50% women. MBA programs are about 33% women students; pre-experience masters programs are about 50%. Part-time and EMBA programs are seeing the entry of very talented women into the professional path. 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 children or that are pregnant with flexible class schedules and/or 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 sixty 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 to 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? 40% 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. Isn’t the issue to help build purpose-driven firms? Do women prefer to work in purpose-driven organizations? Do traditional business organization climates drive women away?

The Opportunity

Extraordinary leaders like Terry Sullivan, Lorna Donatone, Valerie Jarrett, and Sheryl Sandberg 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.

The presence of women itself is hugely transformational—on business and on the schools that train women leaders. 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 b-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.

Our experience at Darden shows that even modest increases in the enrollment of women can have a transformational impact on the character and culture of the educational program. Greater representation of women in classrooms, learning teams, and project groups changes the conversation: richer, more diverse, and greater respect for differences. Students (women and men) report higher levels of satisfaction with the learning experience. Faculty report better classroom and team results. And corporate recruiters report greater satisfaction with the pool of talent they encounter. The experience at Darden is confirmed by empirical research elsewhere, some of which was offered as background reading to this meeting.

The Challenge

It would seem that one path to better outcomes would be to enroll more women. Now consider the following:

  • According to the 2010 Census, some 916,000 women graduated from college in 2009; but only about 80,000 women take the standardized entrance exam for graduate business school.
  • Women constitute about 57% of all undergraduate students in the U.S., but only 43% of examinees of the entrance exam for graduate business school.

The following provides a rough estimate of the relevant female applicant pool for the schools gathered for the White House meeting. These data are drawn from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which administers the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Of greatest relevance are the percentages reported by GMAC in Column C—treating these percentages as independent effects gives a lower-bound estimate since the effects are unlikely to be totally independent of each other. Unfortunately GMAC does not easily allow determining the degree of interdependence. This is an opportunity for further research.

Line Group (Column A) Volume (B) % of Line 1 (C) Notes (D)
1 Total Tests Taken by Women 101,336
2 Unique Examinees – Women 81,069 80% Unique examinees were 80% of total tests taken in 2012-13 test year
3 Considering MBA 50,263 62% 62% of GMAT examinees want to apply to MBA programs
4 Considering Full-Time 33,676 67% 67% of those considering MBA want to enroll in full-time programs
5 Scored 640+ 6,062 18% 18% of those considering MBA scored 640+
6 4-9 years of experience 2,122 35% 35% of those considering MBA have 4-9 years of experience

Of the 81,000 women who take the test, only 50,000 have made the decision to apply to an MBA program, of which only 34,000 are considering attending a full-time MBA program. Of these some 6,000 women offer academic potential generally consistent with the admission “sweet spot” of schools at the White House meeting. Taking into account the traditional years of work experience (row 6), leaves about 2,000 candidates. Even if you relax the expectation of years of work experience, the resulting numbers of candidates are small relative to the aspirational enrollment of leading schools. And even the 34,000 women considering a full-time MBA program (line 4) is small relative to the 633 AACSB-accredited institutions in the world (which would yield 54 women per class).

One general conclusion is that if we are to achieve the benefits of enrolling more women in MBA programs, we need more women applicants. Change will come slowly.

Here is some history. The 20-year GMAT volume time-series shows growth in tests taken by women both in absolute number and percentage of total. (GMAC does not report data about unique test-takers, but says that the number of unique test-takers is from 80 to 84% of total tests taken in the years since 2008-09.) The GMAT volume does not directly translate to b-school application volume, especially since GMAT-takers today have many options beyond the MBA degree. Still, from these data, we can infer that more women are applying to b-schools now, at least as a percentage of total b-school applicants, than 20 years ago.



The growth rate in women taking the GMAT is faster than for men. Over the past 10 years, the compound average growth rate for men was -0.06%; for women +1.72%.

Increasing the representation of women in business school programs would enhance the educational experience of both men and women. Achieving this is constrained by the small numbers and proportion of women seeking education in business. Therefore a priority should be to increase the pool of qualified applicants. Actions to support this priority could include:

  • Improve K-12 education to promote entry into, and graduation from, undergraduate programs.
  • Intensify outreach from undergraduate and graduate business schools to undergraduate students.
  • Expand public and private financial aid for women students.
  • Promote programs that help undergraduate women transition into business careers. These include short certificate programs and one-year “Masters in Management” programs to be taken immediately after undergraduate school.
  • Relax H1-B visa requirements for international women seeking to work in the U.S. upon graduation from MBA programs.


The various conversations and readings last week reaffirmed for me the importance of how business schools frame their work to prepare leaders for a society of growing diversity. Sheryl Sandberg got it right: witnessing the growing diversity of enterprises and organizations is a wake-up call to all leaders. Standing still is not an option. The stories and initiatives of which I heard at the White House suggest that all b-schools are moving. And the pace of change within schools may seem unequal to the challenge:

  • Extraordinary leaders like Terry Sullivan, Lorna Donatone, Valerie Jarrett, and Sheryl Sandberg don’t simply spring out of thin air. It takes decades of training and experience to develop strong leaders of either gender. Schools have a vital role to play.
  • The presence of women itself is hugely transformational—on business and on the schools that train women leaders. Growing diversity will have a staggering impact on organization cultures (imagine the leap the Navy will make with the introduction of women on submarines.)
  • One size does not fit all. A growing body of empirical and anecdotal evidence shows that women and men experience school in different ways. Research indicates that women experience the learning process differently than men (see, for instance, Women’s Ways of Knowing the cornerstone study in this area). Shaping the learning experience that best serves the development of women and men is the focus of quite a lot of experimentation at b-schools today—Darden’s experience and the conversation at the White House meeting suggest avenues of such experimentation.
  • It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Women will slowly increase as a percentage of all business students. The response of graduate business schools today will start to have visible impact in society in maybe a decade.
  1. Are we not after a new style of leadership, one that combines characteristics of what might be considered as feminine and masculine characteristics? See, for instance: http://www.johngerzema.com/presentations/tedxwomen-talk and http://www.johngerzema.com/books/athena-doctrine. []
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4 Responses to Women in Business and the Role of Business Schools

  1. Daein Cha says:

    I this that it is important for us all to acknowledge that social norms and other forces continue to cause women to “lean away” from opportunities, and to encourage women to go for it! We also need to come up with ways to support those who choose to go for it.

  2. EssaySnark says:

    Dean Bruner – *thank you* for this write-up. We had heard that there was a White House meeting of bschool deans talking about gender issues recently but unfortunately all that we had encountered thus far coming out of that meeting was a selfie from one of those deans on Twitter with Ms. Jarrett (not that that wasn’t interesting!). It’s awesome to get this recap of the very important discussions and your additional thoughts on all of it. Much appreciated!

    The GMAT data is especially useful. Wow, only 2,000 qualified female candidates? That’s shocking.

    Your opening comments that the military leads these changes are curious though. Had actually understood it to be the other way around, that social changes force the military to make such transitions.

    The other issue which we’ve recently started exploring is about the comparative preparedness of women for bschool. We’re going to be posting on essaysnark.com about this soon. No data, purely anecdotal, but we’ve seen more women struggle in the challenging graduate curriculum than men. We assume some of this is due to a higher proportion of non-traditional students who are female, among other factors. Not all schools have sufficient support systems in place to help them academically. It’s a pretty sucky feeling to get into a top school and then feel like a failure once you’re there.

    Thanks again for this post, it will be studied further!

  3. Glad this is being discussed in forums that have a greater chance of leading to exponential change. Glad the dean has met with a number of accomplished female leaders. Glad the discussions are turning towards what to do rather than what to believe – that’s a lot more pragmatic and impactful on us real people.

    A couple of pieces of advice to the dean, to Darden, and to business leaders in general, from my long experience as a woman in business who enthusiastically and genuinely supports and promotes other women:

    First, avoid falling into the trap of thinking so long and hard about the questions posed above, that you miss the opportunities to make a more meaningful difference that are right in front of you. Case in point, I ‘leaned out’ when I left Darden as an employee (this was many years after I was a happy student there) because I didn’t see how my point of view fit into the school’s management style and was alienated by a deeply insensitive, male senior leader. But nothing was done on my way out the Darden door, as I heard senior faculty and other leaders lament the fact that another talented woman was leaving. For anyone who has moved to a new state for a new job will tell you, there is always a willingness to find a better solution than leaving…after all, you’ve given up so much to join that company, why would you want to leave without doing everything possible to stay? I’m sure there are many more positive examples of encouraging women to ‘lean in’ (and not all women agree with the premise of Sandberg’s book by the way) but mine is surely only one of many examples of missed opportunities.

    Second, there’s a lot of getting out of the way that most men and some women need to do – including getting out of their own way of properly understanding the true issue (and therefore getting to the real solution). This isn’t an issue of “growing gender equality” after all. Let’s call a spade a spade: the genders have always been equal even if they didn’t always see it that way. Who ever said the genders weren’t equal? They may not have been represented in equal numbers but that was the result of decades, even centuries, of bias, not because the genders were in any real or meaningful way equal. There may be different strengths and capabilities that each gender brings to the business table, but that doesn’t in and of itself suggest inequality. Only difference. The only thing that’s been unequal is opportunity. And that, in my humble opinion, is because of a lot of barrier building done by those who don’t want to lose control and power. Further, the rise of women in business, community and government organizations is certainly new, but the problems they face are – at the risk of oversimplification – simply the same problems they’ve always faced, only manifested differently given different circumstances. For example, rather than being told to stay in the kitchen in explicit and implicit ways, women are now told to stay in their office, usually in deeply subtle but no less controlling ways. Instead of being expected to make polite small talk at their husbands’ company cocktail parties, women are expected to fill a certain stereotypical role as nurturing, benevolent and emotional leaders and are often equally punished when their behavior doesn’t fit this nonsensical mold. My advice on this front – to men, naturally, but also to many women out there – is to get out of the way by suspending old, limiting and ultimately deeply corrosive expectations of women…and men, frankly. Just presume equality – presume no difference – presume nothing about behaviors based on genders – presume nothing, period. Get out of your own way by letting go of these assumptions and expectations and just presume equality. So now your questions are not longer questions – instead of “Why DON’T we have women in combat,” you just put women in combat. All I know is that I’m tired of hearing the talk about the growing role of women in business and how do we handle it and how do we need to change to encourage this…it’s not that difficult if there’s a genuine willingness to avoid analysis paralysis AND get out of the way (even your own) and just get things done.

    My dollar’s worth of opinion on this ongoing discussion of women in business and the role of business schools.

  4. Kelsey says:

    “I this that it is important for us all to acknowledge that social norms and other forces continue to cause women to “lean away” from opportunities, and to encourage women to go for it! We also need to come up with ways to support those who choose to go for it.”

    Daein Cha, you made a great point but if women are putting themselves in situations where they’re constantly feeling like they have no support that could be the problem itself. Women need to learn to let go of all the negative forces and surround themselves with a great support system. If they don’t have on they should seek one out. There are so many different communities for women entrepreneurs online these days.

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