Joëlle Le Vourc’h contemplated giving up her place at business school in the very first term. The problem was not the course, which she enjoyed, but the isolation and occasional discrimination from students and professors. The year was 1970 and she was the first and only woman to have joined ESCP Europe as a student.
“A few students complained about my presence — they said I took a place from a man.” They also told her they worried her attendance would lower the course’s standing. “It was a minority but it was difficult for me. I wasn’t prepared for it.”
Ms Le Vourc’h had picked the oldest business school in the world (it was established in 1819) because, by French business school standards, it was pioneering and she could not afford to do an MBA in the US, where women had been accepted at Harvard since 1962.
After graduating from the Faculté de Pharmacie de Paris, she was advised that women with business ambitions beyond secretarial work should bolster their CVs to succeed. So she went to ESCP Europe to study for the diplôme, now Master in Management, graduating in 1973 (after one pre-masters year and two years for the masters). Following a career in auditing and consulting, including stints at the World Bank, she is now emeritus professor at the school, specialising in international accounting.
The number of women studying at business schools has grown substantially since Professor Le Vourc’h’s student days. Yet they still remain the minority. Financial Times figures show that in 2017, women made up 35 per cent of the MBA students in the top 100 programmes, although women fare better in specialist masters programmes in marketing, accountancy and management. According to the FT’s most recent data (2016), women made up 50 per cent of the student numbers on ESCP Europe’s masters in management course.
A case study published by Harvard Business School in 2013, found that Prof Le Vourc’h’s experiences were not unusual. One 1971 alumna recalled professors who never asked the views of a woman, except on the topic of women’s products.
For Prof Le Vourc’h, lectures were a mixed blessing. Typically, she says, lecturers did not notice which of her 249 male peers was missing. But if she did not make it to the lecture hall, “everyone noticed”.
Some of her professors were extremely open and inspiring, but others were hostile. The economics professor would “single me out and ask me to answer the worst questions, to make me look stupid and show that women couldn’t cut the mustard, to show other men it was better with [just] men”. Even the case studies taught at business school did not take women into account, reflecting the fact that decisions were largely made by men in business.
While ESCP Europe was “pioneering” it was “not organised”, she says. As a consequence there were not even toilets or sports available to female students. As it turned out, sharing the facilities with the female administrative staff was an icebreaker and the start of good friendships, helping to combat loneliness. In the process it taught her the importance of good relationships with secretaries. “I learnt the functioning [of the organisation] and how things worked.” This shaped her working life.
At first, Prof Le Vourc’h was the subject of gossip. As soon as she was spotted having coffee with a classmate, he was deemed to be her boyfriend. So she learnt to adapt, trying to make sure she was always in a group of at least two or three others.
As the only woman, she was subject to a great deal of scrutiny: “the way I was dressed, my haircut but also my reactions to events”. This attention faded over time as classmates adjusted to her presence.
In addition to supportive teachers and students, she found help from the alumni association “probably because they were already in business working with the few females already executives in their work environment”.
When she was interviewed by Arthur Andersen, formerly one of the “Big Five” accounting firms, they said: “A woman in auditing? A client would never accept that. They wouldn’t accept a woman asking the questions.” Another told her that she would be unlikely to get salary increases and promotions.
When she applied to Coopers & Lybrand (which became PwC after its merger with Price Waterhouse), they did not mention her gender. So she joined the firm.
As it turns out, being a lone woman at business school was a great foundation for her future career. “I was used to being in a minority. Compared to female auditors coming from university who didn’t have experience of dealing with mainly male colleagues.”
When the 67-year-old was younger she had no interest in feminist activism. “I thought they were going too far. I thought that by doing my job I would convince my managers. But maybe I’m wrong. I am surprised to see that there are still problems in business. It’s changed but not enough.”
Making it: Joëlle Le Vourc’h’s advice
• Take advantage of all that is offered including soft-skills electives, alumni conferences, travel and sharing different cultures with classmates
• Do not be shy in discussions and prepare your arguments
• Do not hesitate to be in working groups with difficult people (misogynists in particular)
• Be as creative and innovative as you can, test and share new ideas even in topics such as finance
• Be professional and organised
Get alerts on Women in business when a new story is published