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While corporations have made progress towards gender parity at the board level, we are not seeing the same trends replicated in the C-suite, which fuels the pipeline for future board directors.
What prevents so many women from rising above mid-level management? One explanation is provided by ‘Women of Influence’, a recent study by Thomson Reuters, which found that female executives in the US may feel that they outperform their male counterparts in certain skill sets, but when it comes to networking and self-promotion, the majority of women executives say that men are still doing it better.
Across the five themes of career success in this study, women consider career advancement their weakest area. They face challenges finding new opportunities, negotiating the chain of command effectively and creating work-life balance. They also face challenges in self-promotion, advocating for themselves and expressing their talents.
Business school can prepare women for the C-suite – and as a result, corporate boards. Yet only one-third of MBA students are women, although some schools have higher percentages. Women tend to shy away from business school for a number of reasons, which sometimes include a lack of confidence about succeeding on the entrance exam and in analytical coursework or getting into the school they want. Women also tend to weigh career-family balance more than men and often decide whether to pursue the MBA before having children. Consequently, they are often uncertain about whether an investment in an MBA will be a pay-off for their careers over the long-term and choose not to apply.
However women need to reappraise their view of business schools and MBA programmes. Business schools are a microcosm of the C-suite in that they prepare students to manage financial decisions and negotiate, network and navigate the system, thus contributing to their overall confidence and leadership skills. While it is not necessary to have an MBA to become a chief executive, it certainly is a big advantage, especially for women: 43 per cent of Fortune 100 chief executives have an MBA; for women chief executives, that percentage is even higher at 56 per cent, according to Forté Foundation research.
Business schools can better prepare women for the executive ranks on many levels. Women studying for an MBA learn the value of networks and networking, they learn the importance of speaking up and absorbing criticism. They learn negotiating skills, are shown how to deal with failure and learn to take risks and experiment in a safe and controlled environment. Forté Foundation encourages women to weigh these factors in the value of a business school education, in addition to the traditional short-term cost assessments women often calculate when considering an MBA.
Schools must also do their part to attract women, to keep them throughout the programme and to demystify the MBA in the first place. Business schools should not only commit to achieving gender equity in their MBA programmes, but would also benefit from targeting female undergraduates both in and outside the Graduate Management Admission Test pipeline, as well as working female professionals. The most successful marketing tools such as roadshows, scholarship competitions and networking events must showcase women at all stages of their professional careers and address concerns about the financial investment in an MBA.
The women who are entering the corporate workforce today are skilled and business savvy. Yet to rise to the ranks of the C-suite, confidence matters as much as competence. Encouraging more women to pursue MBAs would not only strengthen the skills and confidence they need to succeed, but it would allow corporations to tap into a larger and more diversified talent pool of future business leaders.
The author is executive director of the Forté Foundation.