Redressing the balance: Business schools need to do more to attract women

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The Independent Online

Listen up employers and MBA directors: women are your workforce, and it's time you started tailoring your courses and jobs to their needs.

Six out of 10 university graduates across the developed world, and in some developing countries, are women. Given that three major studies have concluded that having a better gender balance at the top levels of a company bring in greater profitability, it is time women stopped having to develop their career in their male superior's image.

"I certainly think that some of the top schools have a very masculine environment which is embedded and ingrained in the system," says Alison Maitland, co-author of Why Women Mean Business and a visiting senior fellow at Cass Business School. She believes MBAs need to change with the times to attract more women, who currently make up just 30 percent of MBA students.

"That atmosphere can undoubtedly be offputting to women because it gives them the sense they have to be like men to succeed in business. In our book we strongly argue that this model has been fruitless and unfortunate . Young women don't want to have to go down that route."

Maitland thinks the composition of a group, whether on an MBA or in the workplace, affects outcomes, but she is not keen to use male and female gender specifics.

Professor Susan Vinnicombe is the director of Cranfield's International Centre for Women Leaders. She says that looking at the number of women on an MBA learning team is similar to looking at the number of women on a board. Canadian research has found that a critical mass of three or more women are needed at board level. "I think women are often distributed around like a commodity on an MBA," says Vinnicombe. "I have argued a number of times that this is completely wrong."

Lone women within a group might be ignored or considered the token woman, and held to represent all women. "Although in order to be a good team member or leader you need to have certain skills or experience," says Vinnicombe, "the number of women there are in a team does make a difference as to whether you're being heard or not."

Valérie Claude-Gaudillat from the Audencia Nantes School of Management believes that women are actually better at teamwork than men are, and that attracting more women to the course will improve the quality of the work done. "In any group there will be disagreements and it's exhausting," she says. "I think women are better at teamwork. They're better at getting rid of blockages."

Claudia Jonczyk, MBA director at ESCP-EAP European School of Management's London campus, is more even-handed. "There is evidence that when it comes to innovative tasks, co-ed teams tend to out-perform single-sex teams," she says. "Yet this does not imply that women or minorities are better team players. To reap the benefits of diversity you need a critical mass of 'non-mainstream' team members all striving for innovative out-of-the box solutions."

Professor Paddy McNutt from Manchester Business School Worldwide has observed the changed dynamics in different groups when tackling game theory with students, via the Prisoner's Dilemma puzzle. "One group including women took their time to analyse the game before playing. The men-only group just went straight into the game. A third group, predominantly women, maximised the number of coins and did it very quietly. There is a group dynamic, and it changes when you mix the groups both in terms of age and gender," he says.

Claude-Gaudillat says that more and more women are applying for MBAs, encouraged by the group work. But Maitland believes business schools need to do much more than simply encourage women to apply. In fact they need to radically restructure their teaching model to accommodate women and start treating them as valuable assets rather than novel additions.

"Companies have to understand the multiplicity of roles which women have, instead of marketing to a one-dimensional female," she says. Business schools would do well to do the same.

'Women change the whole dynamic'

Dustie Houchin studied at Warwick Business School and has since set up the Women of Warwick network.

"I had always expected the Warwick MBA to be a male-dominated environment, but I thought I would be out of my depth because of my background in small business, not because of my gender.

The thing that really struck me was how strong all the ladies on the course were: they were fun, driven and tenacious women who want to make something of their lives.

Teamwork was a huge part of the course. In Warwick everyone is put into groups of between six and eight and about 60 per cent of our work was done in these groups. There were lots of long days and late nights. Sometimes the most academic were not the highest achievers, because of the team dynamics.

I think women change the whole dynamic of a group. When you put women into a male-dominated group, the men act differently. More listening goes on.

Do I believe one gender is more creative than the other? No. I think more bonding and a deeper understanding goes on when there is a mixed gender group. Perhaps in a male-dominated environment the ego gets in the way.

I set up the Women of Warwick network so that we could all share our experiences. I absolutely didn't want it to be a feminist group, but the bottom line is that women do face totally different challenges in this environment."

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