Change Can Start in the Halls of Higher Education
By Alexander Triantis
SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Business schools might seem safely removed from the seismic transformation that’s happening as more and more men across corporate America fall from positions of power, accused of sexual improprieties as part of the ongoing #MeToo movement. They’re not. Institutions like ours — dedicated to preparing leaders for positions of influence — play a central role in shaping attitudes and driving conversations about gender in the workplace.
Some executives find alternate paths to the C-suite, but the typical journey involves formal study of finance, accounting, marketing and management. Roughly half of Fortune 500 CEOs earn MBAs, which positions business schools as society’s best hope to knock down barriers for women in male-dominated industries.
The first step toward reform is to look inward at barriers in higher education. Although women earn more college degrees than men at all levels, business schools historically lag in gender parity. Most MBA programs report female enrollment below 40 percent.
Progress has been slow, but important lessons emerge as we engage in honest dialogue. The 2017 Women in the Workplace report, published by McKinsey & Company less than one week after sexual misconduct allegations began to rock the media and entertainment industry, helps frame the conversation.
Additional insights come from research published by my faculty colleagues at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Here are five guidelines based on the research and our own trial and error.
1. Get real
Among other findings, the McKinsey survey of more than 70,000 employees at 222 companies shows that men remain overly optimistic about the rate of progress toward gender equity. “Many men don’t fully grasp the barriers that hold women back at work,” the report concludes. “As a result, they are less committed to gender diversity.”
To promote more realistic views, the Smith School has worked toward gender parity at the top. Seven of our nine newest board members are women, and more than half of my direct reports on the senior leadership team are women.
Research co-authored by my colleague, professor Liu Yang, shows why this matters. “When women hold senior leadership positions, they cultivate more female-friendly cultures inside their firms,” she says.
2. Invite everyone
Real solutions require men to get involved with gender initiatives. Misogyny or subconscious bias might hold some men back, but new research co-authored by my colleague, professor Subra Tangirala, suggests that many men stay on the sidelines because they feel it is not their place to engage in “women’s issues.”
The research shows that a simple invitation from the CEO is often sufficient to overcome the psychological barrier. “Leaders need to explicitly communicate that all employees, regardless of their gender, have a stake in and can meaningfully contribute to gender parity programs,” the authors write in Harvard Business Review.
3. Expand the pie
Competition for highly qualified female MBA candidates has grown fierce in recent years as business schools work toward gender parity.
Women applicants receive better scholarship offers as supply-and-demand economics kick in, but industrywide gender parity will not happen until business schools grow the whole market. This will require long-term thinking and outreach to women and girls before they settle on their college majors.
The Smith School already has seen results with an immersion program for high school girls. One participant from Indiana never saw college of any type in her future, but she changed her mind after attending the classes and workshops. She won’t be ready for an MBA program anytime soon, but her weeklong exposure to business school has created the possibility.
4. Model Correct Behavior
Students learn more than hard skills at business school. They also receive early lessons in how to treat colleagues on diverse teams.
Business schools can teach correct principles through lecture. But my colleague, professor Neta Moye, understands the importance of modeling values-based leadership and giving students opportunities to practice in controlled environments.
She offers a personalized, experiential leadership development program for MBA students that builds on classroom instruction. Among other things, students learn to speak up when they see moral and ethical breakdowns. Power centers in Hollywood, Manhattan, Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere could use fearless leaders like that.
5. Measure progress
Business schools love data. We have programs for quantitative finance, marketing analytics and information systems. But we often get fuzzy when we talk about gender. If the goal is to “accelerate the advancement of women leaders” or to “promote gender equity in business and society,” what exactly does success look like?
The Smith School added a degree of accountability in 2015 with 50/50 by 2020, a pledge to close the MBA gender enrollment gap by the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Since then we have expanded our signature Women Leading Women forum from one evening to a full month of activities. We have opened an Office of Diversity Initiatives, hosted workshops on subconscious bias, and drilled down on gender issues related to talent pipelines, academic programs and job placement.
Despite the efforts, our intake of women across our various MBA programs hasn’t increased as rapidly as necessary. However, working with other educators and corporate partners, we continue pushing forward.
We believe that every bit of progress can make an impact on organizations across the economy. At the very least, women’s issues are being discussed much more by all our constituents, and creative ideas to solve the long-standing and pressing issues are being explored.
The ongoing revelations of the #MeToo movement demonstrate what happens when problems get hushed or ignored instead.
Alexander Triantis is dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Photo credit: Mirshod/Adobe Stock
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