Scaling new career summits: Women in the boardroom

Women are making boardroom strides after conquering Africa's highest peak

Women have long been underrepresented in the higher reaches of management and in the boardroom. But a Dutch business school is determined to break the glass ceiling once and for all. Rotterdam School of Management runs an international women's leadership MBA elective that prepares its participants to scale the corporate ladder by challenging them to climb the highest peak in Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro.

Last October, 17 women between the ages of 25 and 56 undertook a 10-day trek to Kilimanjaro's summit, Uhuru Peak, 5,895 metres above sea level. Of the climbers, 13 made it to the top. The expedition was lead by Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to have scaled Mount Everest and the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

Expedition members are drawn from RSM's full- and part-time MBAs, its executive MBA and the Global One executive MBA. They span 50 nationalities, including Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Dutch, South Africans and South Americans. Working as a team is part of the challenge.

"We run a debriefing session after the women return and I've had a few say to me, 'Oh, I failed because I didn't reach the summit'. But that wasn't the aim," says Dianne Bevelander, RSM associate dean of MBAs and a specialist in women's leadership. The goal is taking risks, and pushing yourself past your comfort zone. There may come a point when you realise that by continuing you are putting yourself and your team in danger. You've got to know when to stop. That also is a valuable lesson."

The dangers are real. Beyond 3,000m there is a danger of altitude sickness, the symptoms of which include dizziness and stomach cramps. Heat, fatigue and hydration are an ever-present risk, especially to people unaccustomed to climbing.

Denise Eikelenboom, 40, who made it to base camp Kibo Hut at 4,700m describes her climb as an emotional rollercoaster. "I could not reach the top due to altitude sickness but I learned some really good things about myself," she says. "First of all, I lost my fear of failure. And I used the practical tips from our guides to take it slow and to live one day at a time. It's no use worrying on a Monday about your busy schedule on Thursday and Friday. I was touched by the fact that some of the younger women said to me I inspired them as a leader."

Set to complete her Global One executive MBA in June, Eikelenboom, director of the private air ambulance service ANWB Medical Air Assistance, reckons the gruelling climb was a lesson in leadership. "My employer who is sponsoring my MBA was really excited about the Kilimanjaro experience, which they regard as a part of my personal development. My company has a strong strategic plan which I am focused on. But I still have a lot of career moves left. I haven't reached the point at which I can say, 'OK, this is it. This is the level I have to stay at.'"

There are no rules governing fitness, but applicants are selected on the basis of a video presentation and essay on their motivations for making the climb. Spread over four sessions, preparations for the trip include practical advice on equipment and help in writing a "team chapter", a set of rules which will guide the women in how to respond to emergencies and resolve conflict once they are up on the mountain. There was also some handy tips on blogging. A detailed personal blog forms part of the assessment. The video and the essay play an important part in subsequent lessons in leadership. "It's about storytelling and how we see ourselves," says Bevelander. "It's about developing a narrative around who you want to be when you come down the mountain. It makes them think a little deeper."

The idea for linking a climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro to an elective in women's leadership came to Bevelander when she was researching a paper on student hierarchies within the MBA. Published in 2011 under the title Ms Trust: Gender Networks and Trust – Implications for Management and Education, the research found that while women were happy to socialise and network with other women, in a risky professional environment they tended to trust each other less than they trusted men. "I started out looking for evidence of how the various nationalities were interacting but this deep seated deference to male leadership came as a bit of a shock," says Bevelander.

It was here that the idea of challenging the women took root. After brainstorming a number of situations which would encourage female bonding, the idea of a mountain climb emerged as a frontrunner. Rebecca Stephens, who runs motivational expeditions, was the obvious choice to lead it. "MBA students are ambitious young people, more so than any other audience I talk to," she says. "They challenge themselves not only in their careers but also in every other aspect of their lives." Bevelander agrees. "As the mother of three young children, Stephens is a wonderful role model for women."

Feedback so far suggests that the women MBAs are now much more likely to set more challenging career goals and to leave careers that they feel are undemanding.

The Kilimanjaro experience, she believes, will kickstart a new awareness of women's leadership. "Picture a woman at a job interview who can say, 'I climbed a mountain'. It's a lot more interesting than saying 'I did an elective in brand management!' It gives you a pride, a confidence in your decisions. If you have climbed Kilimanjaro you are phenomenal. You are powerful!"

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