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When Cristina Vicini, chairwoman of the Executives’ advisory board of Boston University in Brussels was in the early years of her career, in the late eighties, she had the impression that gender imbalance - a much debated topic at the time - was changing and would soon be resolved. “I cannot believe we are still talking about this in the twenty-first century,” she says today.

The discussion is indeed continuing, which is why some of Europe’s leading business schools have published a Call to Action designed to increase the number of women on company boards.

Written with the support of European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, who appealed to European schools for help in September, the seven-page manifesto has four pillars:

•To play a prominent role in identifying and promoting qualified senior female leadership

•To inspire and enable women to tap into professional and informal networks and mentoring

•To increase the flow of women in business schools

•To adapt the curriculum and focus more on capability building

“I am so impressed by the efficient and quick way schools have taken up my initiative,” says Commissioner Reding. “They have provided all the right figures and initiatives, making it an excellent starting point.”

The four pillars will consist of both short term and long term goals. In the short term, schools will create lists of women they deem ready to join company boards, chosen from their own ecosystems. “Women we know in senior positions everywhere, not just the corporate world are being considered,” says Bettina Büchel, a strategy and organisation professor at IMD in Switzerland.

“All the talent is already there” says Ms Vicini, who also serves as the second vice president of The International Alliance for Women.

Schools are aiming to create a database that categorises all the programmes and initiatives designed for women, as well as all the lists. As with MBA programmes, these vary in nature as each school defines their priorities.

At the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, for example, the focus is currently on research. “We need research that makes organisations understand the importance of diversity” says CB Bhattacharya, dean of international relations. One professor in particular, Laura Guillén, is working on a research project that investigates what leadership means to women in managerial positions.

The school is also ensuring male students are being made aware of the issue through workshops that encourage them to reconsider subconscious biases they may have. “We hope men will remember these [sessions] when they are in positions of leadership,” says Mr Bhattacharya.

Hetty Brand-Boswijk, director of business development at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University in the Netherlands, advocates mentoring and sponsorship among female alumni. “Women need to take responsibility… It’s all very well saying it’s the blokes’ fault but we need to help each other,” she says. “We need to empower women to reframe – if you’re part of other women’s success, it’s like reaching the top yourself!” On this note, the school has recently launched a website called WE (Women Empowerment) @ RSM.

In the long term, schools hope to tackle gender inequality on a large scale and get it ingrained into their ecosystems. This would be best reflected in an increase in female students and faculty, which is something all schools say they are constantly working on.

“We now have 15 per cent of female faculty, which is a great improvement to when I first started,” says Nuria Chinchilla, professor of managing people and organisations at Iese Business School in Spain.

After graduating from the school’s MBA programme in 1984, she describes how she watched in disbelief as faculty at the school approached two of her male classmates to invite them to stay on (to study for a PhD), but said nothing to her - despite her impressive grades. “I actually went knocking on their door, saying ‘Hello, would you like to have a woman?’” she says, to which they were very receptive. She has now been there 27 years. “They had just never thought to consider it, being so used to working with only men,” she explains.

This year’s FT ranking of European Business Schools shows that on average 29 per cent of faculty are women. Schools are clearly now getting used to considering women in the role but it is still taking time to reach a gender balance.

On masters programmes, female student numbers are slightly better - close to 50 per cent. But in the global FT MBA 2011 ranking, European business schools reported an average of just 30 per cent female students.

Scholarships are one way forward, however. At Insead in France, for example, 42 per cent of Insead MBA scholarships this year were for women. The school has also hosted 15 networking and panel events for female MBA candidates globally and made increased efforts to have at least one female opening or graduate speaker per class.

Commissioner Reding is positive European schools will bring results. “They have already shown that they are able to achieve concrete actions in a short space of time,” she says.

Adhering to her imposed March 2012 deadline for organisations to respond with actions and increase the number of women on boards, Commissioner Reding makes it clear she will have little patience for those who continue to argue that there are no qualified women. “The Call to Action is not theory,” she explains “it refers to real, down-to-earth action and talent.”

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