In August 2009, Melissa Bates resigned from her job at a small start-up business and walked into her first MBA lesson. She says there was only one reason she had applied to be there: to break through the glass ceiling.

“A female mentor advised me that getting another degree was the only way,” she says. And then she saw numerous examples of this among impressive women she met at work and was convinced. “I realised I needed to tick that box for the future of my career,” she says. After graduating this summer, Ms Bates joined McKinsey as a consultant. She also plans to create her own company, focused on renewable energy.

It is female students like Ms Bates that Viviane Reding, Vice-President and EU Commissioner for Justice, is now keen to nurture. High on her agenda is the recommendation by Lord Davies, former trade minister, that a fifth of directors in the FTSE 350 should be women by 2013, and she believes one of the best ways of reaching this goal is by working with leading European business schools.

At a meeting in Brussels with leaders of Europe’s business schools last month, she stated that: “We need to start from the ‘bottom’; we need to ensure that women get the best training from the start so that they can climb up the corporate ladder… We need to create a pool of talented women, a pool of the next generation of female leaders… (and) business schools hold the key.”

The plan, though only in its early stages, is to involve business schools in getting more women on boards, through their programmes and their corporate ecosystems. “Women in business schools are an untapped potential,” says Ms Reding. Indeed, 60 per cent of university graduates are female but only 33 per cent of students at the top 25 MBA programmes are women, according to data collected by the Financial Times.

Candace Johnson, president of the board of directors of three funds: Succès Europe, Croissance Europe and Innovation Europe, who suggested this plan to Ms Reding, believes it will ensure companies are inundated with suitable candidates for their boards.

Ms Johnson herself never attended business school and so she admits that when she joined her first board at the age of 35, she was unsure how to behave. She had to go to the chairman of a national savings bank in Luxembourg to ask for help – which he gave four Saturdays in a row. “I can now read balance sheets with the best of them,” she says, laughing about such an unconventional learning experience. But business schools can now give this kind of teaching through seminars and programmes, she adds.

Barbara Judge, member of three boards, including Statoil ASA, a Norwegian energy company, is confident more programmes like this will create valuable evidence of experience. “The world is a believer in credentials,” she says. This is why female lawyers (like herself), doctors and accountants succeed, because they have the credentials to prove they are capable. In the same way, she says, business schools need to give women credentials in management expertise so that they can prove their worth in a language that is understood by the relevant companies.

Many schools are already making moves to address this issue. Alumni at both London Business School and HEC Paris, for example, have created professional organisations to ensure better opportunities for their students and alumni. Universität St Gallen in Switzerland has a Female Board Pool that holds regular gatherings on corporate governance and Edhec Business School in France has set up an ethics board to deal specifically with the promotion of women.

There is also a new type of business school on the horizon. The Bertelsmann media group has set up a Business Women School, to offer women training for management positions.

“It reassures me that the business education sector is so strongly committed to helping talented women reach top positions in companies,” says Ms Reding. “I am convinced that by working together we will break down the barriers.”

And she believes these examples can spread worldwide. “Once there is a European business school initiative, this will certainly extend to other continents,” she says.

But Ms Johnson says she was a bit disappointed at the number of schools who didn’t turn up to last month’s meeting. The top 50 leading European business schools ranked by The Financial Times were invited but less than half showed up. “For some it seems this initiative is not so high on their priority list,” she says.

Monique Valcour, professor of management at Edhec is more optimistic. “This was only a first step,” she points out. “If we continue to invest in this method, more schools will get involved.” She believes the main thing is getting more role models and spokespeople, men as well as women promoting the call to action and having more rankings that highlight the representation of women in business school and beyond - something that Ms Reding is keen to see also.

The next stage is whether companies will employ these women once they graduate business school. Ms Johnson is convinced they will. “It’s a no-brainer,” she declares. “The work has been done for them!” Prof Valcour meanwhile believes they will have to, otherwise legislative quotas will come into play.

The timescale for action is six months. “In March next year, I will make an objective analysis of the facts, figures and initiatives and see if there is a need for European legislative measures or not,” says Ms Reding. Until then she is looking to schools and companies to be as inspired as she is by this new direction and voluntarily pledge to increase the number of women on corporate boards to 30 per cent by 2015 and to 40 per cent by 2020.

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