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One of the best things about being a business school dean is that I have an opportunity to tout our talented students – people such as Keya Dannenbaum and Molly Dominguez.
Keya is a former Fulbright Scholar in Colombia with human rights work experience in India and political campaign experience in the US. She is the founder of an internet service that matches voters with candidates who share their values. Molly graduated from West Point and was commissioned as an officer in the US Army Medical Service Corps. Now a dual-degree MBA and veterinary medicine student, she plans to use her education to devise solutions for sustainable feeding of the world’s population.
That both of these impressive students are women reflects the reality of our world, a world in which business schools must continue to play their part by shaping diverse learning environments and preparing women and men for leadership roles.
I believe that learning is maximised under conditions of diversity. Numerous studies have shown that the most innovative environments are those that resist comfort. Teams of people who know each other too well or have worked in one mode too long tend to get complacent. By contrast diverse teams that encourage debate, self-reflection and expression of individuality tend to enhance creative performance. Innovation is born of friction.
The lesson here is striking. We already know that people of different ages, genders, races and cultures must work together in our interconnected world.
But what does that mean for education? From my perspective: everything.
In business schools, we have a unique opportunity to bring together future leaders from all backgrounds to engage in rigorous learning, self-reflection and debate. Women such as Keya and Molly are essential to this diversity, which benefits men as much as women.
Educating the business, NGO and public policy leaders of the future means cultivating all the available talent. According to the most recent global figures from the Unesco Institute for Statistics, women earn roughly the same number of bachelor degrees as men. It makes sense to encourage this pool of talent to consider business-oriented careers and to champion business as a route to creating economic and social welfare.
We must also expand the pool of engaged women in the developing regions where it is small. That is why Wharton has partnered with Goldman Sachs in their 10,000 Women initiative, providing management education to female entrepreneurs in under-served regions where female education still lags.
Considerable research has demonstrated that female education in any community is linked to higher wages, better health and numerous other indicators of long-term economic growth. Educating women creates enhanced economic value.
This brings me to my final point. While we have made great progress in the education system to increase women’s access to it, significant challenges remain. Women disappear at the highest levels of education and in the professorial ranks in nearly every country.
In the corporate business world matters are even worse. As Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg points out in her popular TED Talk, women hold barely 16 per cent of all C-level positions. On boards, too, they are vastly under-represented.
Even in affluent Norway it took a 2006 law requiring all corporate boards to be 40 per cent women for Wharton alumna Judith Bollinger to achieve board membership. A talented equity analyst, she says if it were not for the legislation that initially opened the door, she would not have reached her current position of chairman of the board of ABG Sundal Collier, the investment bank.
There is much more we can do in terms of mentoring and the creation of cultures that support women, in order to help their advancement.
Business school enrolments are only part of the story, but one worth celebrating when we can.
Thomas Robertson is the dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
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