Deborah Merrill Sands, dean of the Simmons School of Management – a business school designed especially for women – says she is asked all the time whether an all-women’s MBA programme is necessary in an age where female executives have made so much progress climbing the ranks of corporate America.
Prof Sands has a ready answer: “Only 2 per cent of chief executive officers at Fortune 500 companies are women, only 16 per cent of corporate officers are women and only 8 per cent of top level staff,” she says matter-of-factly. “We have not completed this work.”
Located in Boston’s Back Bay, Simmons is one of the first – and until very recently, the only – MBA programme targeted specifically at women. (Mills College in California also has one.) Simmons’ course of study is the stuff of a typical MBA with classes on finance, accounting and marketing. But laced through the curriculum are lessons in how gender affects organisational behaviour.
“Gender dynamics are real and they do impact your career and your opportunities,” says Prof Sands. “If you don’t understand them, you can be sidelined and end up paying a serious cost in terms of how your career progresses. This knowledge is a key piece of what you need to have in your toolkit in order to succeed in business as a woman.”
But gender inequity is not the school’s sole focus, she says. “We don’t dwell on discrimination here. There is a bias – to ignore it, is unsavvy – but you can be strategic and smart.”
The school was started in 1973 by two women professors at Harvard Business School, aggravated by what they considered the school’s “male gender lens”. They saw the need for a new kind of business degree: one that provided traditional MBA fundamentals, including Harvard’s lauded case-study method, but also taught the role of gender in organisational effectiveness and leadership.
Today, more than 70 per cent of the school’s faculty are women and a majority of their case studies feature women. The school has graduated more than 3,000 women from its programme and more than 1,500 from its executive education programme.
Prof Sands says that the single-sex classroom helps women gain confidence. “I tell students: ‘Treat this as an oasis.’ It’s an optimal learning environment. We know from research that when women are in the minority at company meetings, there are silences. There is no need to replicate that when they’re investing the time and resources to learn.”
Unlike many cut-throat graduate MBA programmes, Prof Sands says that the dynamic in Simmons’ classrooms is co-operative and supportive. “It is part of the culture of most business schools and law schools to want to be seen as an individual, one head above everybody else, but here it’s collaborative competition,” she says. “It’s: ‘I’m going to excel, but not at your expense.’”
Jill Avery, a former senior-level marketing manager at Gillette, is a new professor at the school who earned her MBA at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Prof Avery says that while the gender issue is “not intentionally ignored” at other business schools, “the tacit position is a male approach to doing business”. “Most of business theory has been built on how men operate and are successful, which may not work for women,” she says.
“Simmons opens [students’] eyes to the real business environment and says: these are the challenges for our gender, and here are some coping strategies. We’re raising consciousness to what the real world is like.”
Students learn the different ways in which women and men communicate, make decisions and negotiate. Prof Avery says that the school’s curriculum emphasises soft skills, such as communication and emotional intelligence, which will help students skilfully navigate their work environments. “If you can’t do this stuff, it makes it hard for you to be successful in business,” she says. “[Soft skills] are integral to leadership.”
Some in the MBA community, however, say that an all-women business programme might not adequately prepare students for an office environment in which men and women must work together.
Stacy Blackman, MBA consultant, says the programme is “not reflective of the business world as it is” and believes that some prospective employers could have reservations about a graduate who perhaps had not learned to “swim with the sharks”.
In the working world, “you might be in a position where you’re the only woman at the table, or you’re in the minority”, she says. “You would want to feel comfortable and confident about that.”
Cheryl Fudge, a recent graduate of Simmons, admits she had those very same reservations about attending the school. “I worked in a male-dominated industry and I was concerned it would hold me back. I thought that in order to play in the man’s world, I needed to go to school with them,” says Ms Fudge who carries out technology consulting for Deloitte.
What changed her mind was a course on negotiation. In it, she learned that “the biggest mistake that women make is that they don’t ask”.
“They don’t ask for that raise, or that promotion, or those additional resources. They hope to be recognised,” she says.
After class that night Ms Fudge went home and put together a business case which she presented to her supervisor requesting her company pay for tuition at Simmons for the final semesters. Her boss approved the expense the next day.
“Being in an environment where you feel supported and empowered makes you feel confident about what you have to offer,” she says. “Without a doubt I am a better-equipped female professional.”
Simmons’ approach to the study of management leads towards philanthropy: business as a force for good rather than a means to make lots of money. The school offers numerous courses on corporate social responsibility, environmental management and social entrepreneurship.
“We are very deliberate in the way we teach classes; there are other values besides profit,” says Fiona Wilson, a professor at the school. “We help students think about the employees, the customers, the community. It’s a view of strategy that resonates with many women.”
The goal, she says, is to create “principled leaders” – who align social and ethical responsibility with profitability in their business strategy.
“The Millennials are more idealistic,” she says, referring to the generation now entering graduate school. “Business schools have not kept up with the huge demand of students who are more socially aware.”
Enrolment at Simmons is understandably self selective. Most American women never consider applying to a single-sex university, let alone an all-women’s graduate programme.
In order to appeal to a wider range of prospective students, the school offers a flexible schedule to accommodate women at various stages of their work and family lives. It also offers options ranging from a one-year accelerated model to a part-time, three-year programme. It is also increasing the age of its student population – welcoming women in their 40s who are changing careers.
Like business schools around the US, Simmons is expanding its overseas recruiting, reaching out to countries such as India and regions such as the Middle East.