In early October, the US National Association of Women MBAs will hold its annual conference in Crystal City, Virginia. As I was preparing my keynote address for this conference, I started thinking about why women have not gone into business in larger numbers.
After all, women have entered into law, dental and medical schools – with close to 47 per cent in each of those programs being women. Yet they have not entered business schools to the same degree. Most US programs hover around 33 per cent enrollment for women, and few have reached 40 per cent or beyond.
So why don’t more women try for careers in business? What can be done about it? And why does it matter? Well, as Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg noted in her book, “It means that when it comes to making the decisions that affect our world, women’s voices are not heard equally.”
Every person who works is employed by some type of business. If women were able to lead more of those businesses, think of the greater impact they could have on our society.
It’s hard to know exactly why women don’t seem as interested in business careers. One hypothesis is that women do not have sufficient role models in business because so few reach top positions. Catalyst, a nonprofit group focusing on women in business, reports that as of 2013, less than 15 per cent of executives and less than 17 per cent of Fortune 500 board members were women. The gap is even worse for women of colour, who only hold 3 per cent of board seats.
In addition, there are not many women faculty in business schools. Reports show less than 30 per cent of business school professors are women, and few of them are full professors. This could be disheartening to women, who would rather pursue careers where they are better represented.
When talking with businesswomen, I have heard some additional ideas. One suggestion is that women might pursue fields such as health care that they believe are more “helping oriented” than business. After all, most women are socialised to be caretakers in our society. As a result, they might view business as too cutthroat.
We know that women sometimes do not see themselves as qualified as men and lack self-confidence. As Katty Kay and Claire Shipman noted in their book, The Confidence Code, “It isn’t that women don’t have the ability to succeed; it’s that they don’t seem to believe they can succeed, and that stops them from even trying. Women are so keen to get everything right that they are terrified of getting something wrong. So women do not take risks, yet without taking them, they will never get to the next level.”
So what can schools do to attract women into business? First, we need more women faculty to teach them and work with them. We need to bring more executive women into our classrooms to highlight the fact that women can serve in top leadership roles. We need to host more campus events and information sessions for women, as well as mentoring programs that engage alumnae and other role models.
Professors need to encourage women to participate more in classes. Just calling on women first helps encourage other women to raise their hands.
We also need to provide communications training to help women speak up more confidently. We need to help them network with their professors, peers and alumni.
They can meet with women undergraduates or even high school students to open conversations about women in business. Because few high schools offer business courses, it is not surprising that many girls graduate without even thinking about pursuing a business major in college.
MBA programs might also need to bring in women at younger ages before they plan to start their families. This means they will not have as much work experience and might need more training and coaching to prepare for the job market.
We should highlight the career success that women can have in business. This encourages women to see that business can be a field that recognises women’s accomplishments. One of my colleagues said that if we had more TV shows that highlighted successful women executives – who were also likable – that might attract women to business as a career choice.
For women to have a stronger impact on the economy, we need them to enter and progress in the field of business. We need them to see that business can be a helping profession that values collaboration, and that they are indeed highly qualified to contribute.
Russell is vice dean and director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organisational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.