A Word from the Associate Dean: Women in Leadership, Women in the MBA

The discussion of women in leadership, by bringing diversity to the top-management team, today is an important one, and it is a conversation that occurs in different ways and to different effect within different locations and cultures. But regardless of the socio-cultural differences, it is impossible to deny that even in developed countries like France, gender equality is an uphill battle. In an increasingly globalized world, this is a consideration that affects all of us, as the world, especially in emerging markets, is grappling with the issue of women in leadership positions.  As Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg discussed in her now famous TED talk on the subject, we do not have enough women in leadership. She focused on the importance of encouraging women to “sit at the table,” to be present and to make their presence known, a challenge because studies show that women systematically underestimate their own abilities. She pushed for a real understanding of the work life balance, a supportive partnership in your at-home relationship that will allow you and your partner to be equally dedicated and engaged in the house and in the workforce.  And as for concerns about starting a family or focusing on a family, Sandberg just said, “don’t leave before you leave”. These suggestions and ideas are symptomatic of a system that makes it difficult, from early on, for women to step up and be leaders. Their voices are less likely to be heard. They are less likely to be liked if they are successful. A woman can be successful, but to do so she is going to have to confront a lot of obstacles that her male counterparts don’t need to worry about. So the way is harder. But we should all be concerned, and particularly as leaders and business schools, we should be taking steps to pave the way for the female leaders of tomorrow. If we all recognize the import and begin to make changes, perhaps the road to leadership will not be quite so hazardous for women of the next generation.

A recent study by Folkman (2011)[1] looks at the ways leadership styles differ between men and women, and the effectiveness of these leaders. They surveyed some 7,200 leaders from some of the world’s most successful and progressive organizations, interviewing peers, bosses, direct reports, and other associates.  They found, not surprisingly, that most leaders are men. And that the higher the level, the higher the percentage of men.  The more interesting data related to the strengths of female leaders, some of which corresponded to what one might stereotypically expect, and some of which veered into more stereotypically “masculine” territory. Women did excel in areas such as developing others, building relationships, engaging in self-development, and exhibiting integrity, what were labeled “nurturing” competencies. In other words, the interpersonal aspect was where the women shone. But that wasn’t all. In fact, at every level, women were rated as better overall leaders than their male counterparts. And that only became more dramatic at higher levels.  The study looked at 16 different leadership competencies, and the women took the cake in 12, including areas like “taking initiative” and “driving results” that may be considered more typically masculine traits.  So why, if the women are better leaders, more holistically competent, more respected by their peers and for all intents and purposes equally if not more capable, are the percentages not reversed? Based on the data, it seems like it might make for better led organizations. Yes, discrimination exists. Women still make only 74 cents on the dollar for what men make. Women are, as Sandberg addressed, more likely to attribute their success to external factors (I had a lot of support, I worked really hard) than men (I’m awesome) and so are less likely to jump to get credit, ask for a raise, fight for a promotion. Women still feel like they either need to choose between work and family, or are expected to at some point; “why promote a woman if she might take maternity leave in two years?” is a discriminatory and purely hypothetical question, but employers may pose it all the same.

At the recent ESSEC-hosted Council on Business and Society in Paris, ESSEC professor of Public and Private Policy Viviane de Beaufort presented a study entitled Women and their Relationship to Power: Still a Taboo or a New Corporate Governance model? She interviewed female board members, company directors, civil politicians and experts in France and abroad, asking them how they felt about their role and the particular qualities they brought to it.[i]  In conducting this study, Professor de Beaufort was struck by the omission of the word ‘power’ in women’s discourse, even women in positions of authority. Her study suggests that ambition has different meaning to women versus men, and that the battle “for power” is perceived as masculine. Fitting into and operating within a masculine model of power is a real challenge, one that can lead many women to attempt to conform rather than promoting their “unique values and their unique managerial practices.” De Beaufort summarizes, “Women should have a right to exercise power differently.” Similarly to the HBS study, Professor de Beaufort found that many more feminine qualities translate to a better managerial style: ability to listen, a capacity to more completely analyze subjects, a middle of the road perspective, keeping their ego out of the way. “It’s hard to generalize,” says Professor de Beaufort, “but we found overall that women are more frank, they have real concern about making things move forward, and they feel strongly about ethics. They place a great deal of importance on perceived legitimacy.”

As educators, as employers, as workers and individuals, we cannot be complacent. Extraordinary leadership skills are not a gender specific attribute, and we need both to encourage and to facilitate our female students’ and our female employees’ pursuit of leadership roles. A woman might be less likely to brag about her accomplishments, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have them. We must be attentive. We must be non-traditional. We must find innovative ways of interviewing, hiring, tasking, challenging, and evaluating results. We must be observers, not assumers. Everyone will benefit from the balance of perspectives and sense of equality that result.

And we must encourage women to take the opportunities available to them that they might not take otherwise. MBA’s, historically, have had a percentage of male participants that dramatically outweighs the percentage of female participants. As we discussed in a post on women and the MBA last year, almost half of the people who take the GMAT are women. However, they account for only about 30% of enrollment in MBA programs. This statistic holds true both in the US and abroad; in 2010-2011 in the US women earned 34% of the degrees from the top ten schools, and in the top ten non-US schools, they earned 30.7 %. While this statistic represents an improvement over the last several decades, a gender imbalance clearly still remains. Why? If women see business school as a male dominated environment, this needs to change. We must engage with female practitioners, bring in female mentors, hire and publish female professors. We must encourage female candidates for MBA’s to, as Sandberg implored, “Own your success!” There are women in business and business education. Their role needs to be more prominent, their expertise needs to be tapped, and their presence must be felt.

This isn’t to say that men and women need to be the same. There has to be a level playing field depending on the priorities of individuals. Opportunities need to be equal and the systemic bias that has excluded women from work and leadership roles, not only in developed nations but more so in emerging markets needs to be absolved.  In the workplace and in schools, we are charged with educating the leaders and managers of tomorrow, both male and female. The Global MBA of ESSEC Business School and ESSEC shares this vision, and has Chairs such as Diversity and Leadership that work on these issues. The Global MBA doubled its percentage of female participants in its second year, giving a boost to its diversity profile and gender balance in the class room. In the years to come, we hope to continue this trend, doing our part to contribute to a shift in gender equality in the workplace of tomorrow.

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