Empowering The Next Generation Of Women Business Leaders

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Think of a pioneering businesswoman. Your might think of icons from recent years – Oprah Winfrey, Sheryl Sandberg, Taylor Swift. But spare a thought for Ama-e.

Though little is known about her personal life, surviving Sumerian records show that she ran a successful business, invested in local real estate, and oversaw a widespread trade network roughly 4,300 years before the Forbes 30 Under 30 list was created.

Ama-e’s legacy is a testament to the vital contributions of women leaders to business and society throughout history.

Of course, many of them faced historic challenges, not least gender prejudices that restricted their rights and freedoms. After all, women officially became ‘persons’ in their own right less than 100 years ago under Canadian law. And the vote in Ireland this weekend to enshrine gender equality in the constitution by removing language about a woman’s role in the home was soundly rejected.

Hurdles and stereotypes that affect women’s success in traditionally male-dominated sectors like politics, STEM, and business persist. That’s why many business schools around the world have introduced initiatives to encourage women to join these industries and support their development towards achieving leadership positions.

But are these initiatives yielding results? Evidence would suggest so, as the number of women accessing business degrees has increased in recent years, though these gains have been mostly incremental.

Survey data gathered by the global accrediting body AACSB International on its US-based member schools shows a five percent increase in female student representation in MBA programs from 2011-2021.

In the 2024 Financial Times Global MBA Ranking, thirteen of the top 100 programs reported having at least 50% women in the current MBA classroom, including Ireland’s Trinity Business School. And this is the third year in succession that The Wharton School has welcomed over 50% women students.

Even so, the need for these initiatives remains alive as ever. There is still an opportunity for many boardrooms to become more gender-balanced, and providing women with access to high-quality business education is an important step towards this goal.

For Elissa Sangster, CEO of Forté, a global network of more than 100,000 women that has to date awarded more than $400 million to female MBA students, “We’re so close to reaching parity in business education, but building and maintaining a strong pipeline remains critical.”

Sangster says that we can’t ease up just yet. “While women are almost at parity in enrollments, we’ve yet to see them hit parity in business leadership, the c-suite, and on corporate boards.

As the pipeline stabilises, we still need to push for gains at the top levels of business leadership.”

Planting the seeds of success

“Together, we are stronger,” says Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy.

This is a foundational principle of the WU Executive Academy Female Leaders Network, which fosters knowledge sharing and collaboration among the institution’s female executive participants and alumnae.

Launched in September 2018 as an informal, self-organized initiative, the project was driven forward by the vision of founding board members Anita Kirilova, Christa Gschweitl, Ozlem Sensin, and Priyanka Dutta Passecker. Today, it connects nearly 2,000 members representing over 70 different nationalities, providing an inclusive space for them to share their experiences and develop skills through organized panel discussions, interactive workshops, and other events.

In Stöttinger’s view, such spaces are important given the obstacles women face in leadership positions which hinder their progression and contribute to an increased likelihood of feeling burned out than their male counterparts.

Women leaders are more likely to put energy into supporting employees’ well-being and fostering diversity – work that is seldom formally rewarded at most companies. Spending time and effort on unrecognized work stretches female leaders’ capabilities and can lead to higher stress, she says.

“What is crucial for the Female Leaders Network is that we create a forum for like-minded females, who share not only the experience of being a woman and female professional but also the transformative power of a learning journey. We at the WU Executive Academy are proud to facilitate and happy to see this seed growing so fast.”

Embracing diverse voices

“I’ve seen a real desire within the organizations I’ve worked in to make positive changes, but what hinders this is often a lack of direction on how to actually do it,” says Nikita Bridgeman, Lecturer in Business Operations and Systems at Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University.

She’s a woman who wears several hats at the business school, including one as Chair of the Women in Business steering group – part of the FABS Advisory Board, which seeks to improve the skills and confidence of female final-year students through mentorship with female industry leaders.

The Women in Business mentorship scheme is open to female students in their last year of graduate or undergraduate studies, helping young women navigate the different challenges they face when starting their careers – especially in industries which are typically male-dominated.

There are also opportunities for networking, as the female students have the chance to meet their peers who are also taking part in the scheme, and their peers’ mentors.

“At our first event, we saw so many connections being made between mentors and mentees alike, it was amazing to see such a supportive community developing so early on,” says Bridgeman.

She believes it’s important for business schools to invest in initiatives which create diverse working environments where innovation and creativity can thrive.

“It is this diversity that not only makes business schools across the globe exciting places to study, but demonstrates the potential of our future workforce,” she says.

Fostering collaboration and innovation

“As a Chinese woman navigating my professional path in Europe, I have gained insights into the diverse dynamics of the global workplace, and the challenges women, especially women of color, face in rising to leadership positions,” says Nan Guo, Program Director of the Women’s Leadership Excellence Program at ESMT Berlin.

The three-day program is designed to prepare women leaders for the executive transition. To date, ESMT has run eight such programs, helping more than 200 highly accomplished women managers transition into more senior roles.

“Increasing female representation at the top ensures diverse perspectives are present in business decision-making, which improves a company’s performance and creates a more inclusive workplace at the top that fosters collaboration and innovation,” says Guo.

While she acknowledges the hardships of being in a minority group in the workplace, she also encourages women to embrace the advantages of such situations.

“I was often the only Chinese woman, or one of a few Chinese women, in an organization, and more so when I progressed to leadership positions. It may feel stressful at times not being mainstream, but being the ‘minority’ has its advantages too. For example, it is easier to stand out from the crowd, especially when my performance exceeds people’s ‘expectations,’” she says.

She advocates senior leaders embracing an evidence- and dialogue-based approach to handling matters relating to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB).

In her own words, “A business leader who can best leverage diverse talents will create a winning advantage for his or her organization.”

Lifting others up

When Gerardine Doyle, now Full Professor of Accounting, assumed her previous role as Director of the UCD Smurfit School, she found herself asking a number of questions. Specifically, she wondered why, within an already diverse and international business school, there was such a low representation of women on some of their programs?

“We collected and analyzed data from our women alumni, students, and potential applicants to understand the obstacles women faced. We compared our program delivery with that of international peer schools, scrutinized our curriculum design, and engaged with faculty and staff to co-create a new format for delivery of our MBA program,” explains Professor Doyle. “We moved the dial tremendously from 22% of women in the class in 2021 to 45% in 2023 and today we have exceeded our 50% goal!”

Professor Doyle is also founding member of ‘UCD Smurfit Women, Inspiring More’ (SWIM). UCD SWIM was co-founded with a gender-balanced team of graduate students and alumni who, upon entering the workforce, realized they had been unaware of biases or prejudice against women. Their first experience of such biases was a shock.

Their motivation was to prepare fellow students with the knowledge, tools, and competencies to combat gender bias as we work towards a more equitable world, with UCD SWIM advancing the mission of UCD Smurfit School to empower all future business leaders to have a positive impact in the world of business and beyond.

“Our initiative seeks to foster the practice of lifting others up rather than tearing them down. We want to ‘inspire more’, encouraging women to think beyond preconceived notions of glass ceilings or barriers in anything they pursue in life,” says Professor Doyle. “Such initiatives are incredibly powerful for the personal and professional development of future business leaders.”

A cooperative approach to boosting diversity

When Nyenrode Business University was founded in 1946, its aim was to form entrepreneurial young men, referred to as “doe-jongens”, and prepare them for positions in international business.

But the school’s mission has evolved since then, opening the pathway for female students in the 1970s, and signing the Diversity Charter with four other educational institutions – VET, ROC Mondriaan, Avans University of Applied Sciences, and ICM Education and Trainings – in June 2022.

“I see Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion as essential to the flourishing of our institution. Our students and participants live in a world characterized by diversity. If they are to operate successfully in it and make a difference, they must be able to deal with it,” says Koen Becking, President and Chairman of the Nyenrode Executive Board.

Part of Nyenrode’s pledge to championing diversity includes the Nyenrode Scholarship Fund, launched shortly before the school signed the Diversity Charter.

“We want to offer motivated talents the chance to reach their full potential with financial contributions from our alumni,” says Becking.

That autumn, Nyenrode hosted a seminar as part of National Diversity Day, platforming speakers such as alumna Yesim Candan, a columnist and thought leader at RTL Nieuws, during a panel discussion event.

“When I arrived on campus in 2000, I had a sense that I was out of place studying here. My immediate reaction was, ‘let’s change this game!’” she says, reflecting on her overall positive experience of studying at Nyenrode, which equipped her with the knowledge and skills to tackle prejudices at a national level.

Celebrating support with childcare for incredible women

Since its launch in 2019, the Oxford-Intesa Sanpaolo MBA Graduate Scholarship has helped five exceptionally talented young women achieve their ambitions to forge careers armed with an MBA from Oxford Saïd Business School.

The scholarship provides full funding for a female scholar each year, covering all fees, living costs, and, if needed, a childcare bursary. When the scholarship is awarded to someone who does not need childcare support, that element of the funding is made available to other female MBA students at the school who would benefit from it through Green Templeton College.

Amy Major, Director of MBA Program Delivery at Oxford Saïd, expressed gratitude to Intesa Sanpaolo – one of Europe’s leading banks with a history of corporate philanthropy.

“We are incredibly grateful to Intesa Sanpaolo for their very generous scholarship. The unusual element, of financial support with childcare, has opened up opportunities to talented mothers who would otherwise struggle to study an MBA at Oxford. It has certainly contributed to why we are one of the few business schools in the world to have broken gender parity in this current class, at 51 percent female, and why we are a destination of choice for women looking to do an MBA in the UK,” she says.

The current Oxford-Intesa Sanpaolo MBA Graduate Scholar is Malvika Gaekwad, co-founder and co-CEO at The Organic Carbon, who joined Oxford Saïd in the autumn of last year.

“Moving to the UK was a significant leap, but the scholarship eased the transition, providing not just financial assistance but a sense of belonging and support.”

Gaekwad credits her first term at Oxford Saïd with honing her management skills through real-life case studies from diverse economies and industries, enriched by the expertise of her professors.

Her attitude is one of determination and optimism.

“To those considering following in my footsteps, I say chase your dreams with relentless passion. Embrace challenges as opportunities for growth, and remember, a helping hand can be the spark that ignites your journey.”

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