On Women's Equality Day, let's talk business

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Saturday is Women’s Equality Day, marking passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that gave women the right to vote. Yet today, women are far from equally represented in corporate leadership ranks.

Only 6 percent of Fortune 500 chief executive officers are women and most Americans don’t expect this to change anytime soon. In fact, according to a new study by the Rockefeller Foundation, one in four Americans believe we are more likely to achieve human time travel than gender parity in the C-suite by 2025. 

However, studies consistently show that having more women in leadership is good for business and that firms with more women in senior positions are, on the whole, more profitable.

Recent research from Wake Forest University School of Business even demonstrated that female CEOs, chief financial officers and board members serve as an effective bulwark against accounting scandals, fraud and other Securities and Exchange Commission violations.

Without a doubt, the continuing disparity between men and women in top corporate jobs results from a complex set of social and economic factors. It will require the commitment of policymakers and community and business leaders to fully rectify.

However, as we mark both the beginning of a new school year and Women’s Equality Day, it is important to reflect on the role that business schools should play to help more women reach leadership positions. 

Business schools help build the skills and networks that people need to break into leadership roles, opening doors that were previously closed. Unfortunately, across the board, business schools continue to enroll more men than women in their programs offering master of business administration degrees. That’s something we can change.

In my years serving on the board of the Forte Foundation – an organization that works with companies, schools and prospective students to encourage women to pursue the MBA and ultimately expand their career opportunities in business – I’ve had opportunities to connect directly with companies. I heard about their desire to grow their female talent pipeline for leadership roles and I learned about the typical factors that kept women from pursuing an MBA .

There are myriad reasons women don’t enroll in business school in equal numbers to men. For one, even though MBA programs are an investment with huge returns, many women believe that they will have fewer lucrative leadership opportunities in the future. They don’t want to risk walking away from a salary to take that gamble.

Additionally, most business schools recommend working for a few years before pursuing an MBA. As a result, the decisions to start a family or take on other care-giving responsibilities – which continue to fall disproportionally on women – make pursuing a full-time graduate degree a difficult choice for women in their late 20s and early 30s.

This problem is further compounded by the fact that the longer prospective students put off the decision to take graduate school admission tests, the less likely they are to follow through.

Nationally, the number of women enrolling in business school has grown in the past few years, reaching a historic high. In fact, at Simon Business School at the University of Rochester, our student body is between 35 and 40 percent female. We know from firsthand experience that small changes can make a big difference in recruiting top-flight female students.

Two actions are key.

First, many students shy away from pursuing an MBA because they are not aware of the support available to them. The most important thing we, as business schools, can do is to clearly communicate our commitment to providing our students the financial assistance, flexibility, individual mentorship and academic support they need to successfully complete an MBA program.

Second, while full-time MBA programs are the most common, part-time and executive programs can offer the flexibility and timing that may work for women with a wider range of lifestyles and financial and family commitments. Educating prospective students about these options is critical.

We should encourage students – men and women alike – to take the Graduate Management Admission Test early, to keep their options open. The test is used by many business schools.

And we should make prospective students aware that support is available to them in completing an MBA. By speaking to their concerns, we can help more women see the benefits of pursuing a graduate degree in business, and do our part to help achieve gender equality.

Rebekah Lewin is assistant dean of admissions and financial aid at the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester.

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