Brand Culture and the Female MBA

A few lines in a recent Wall Street Journal online piece caught my eye.

“About 39 percent of Harvard’s class of 2013 will be female, its highest percentage ever,” said its managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid.  The same article reported that at Wharton, nearly 45 percent of next year’s incoming MBA class will be women, up from 40 percent last year, according to a school official.

Good news, I thought–albeit still less than one would hope after all these years of schools doing backflips trying to recruit more women to MBA programs.

It led me to wonder whether the same “uptick” phenomenon was occurring in EMBA programs, given their different demographic and psychographic profiles.  I contacted several EMBA program directors, including Beatrix Dart, associate dean, Executive Degree Programs, at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.  She also heads the School’s Initiatives for Women in Business and is a deep thinker and presenter around issues of women in EMBA programs.

She pointed out that her analysis of U.S. EMBA programs ranked in the top 20 by the Financial Times between 2004 and 2010, shows a 4 percentage point increase in female enrollment during the period–from 18 percent to 22 percent.

Progress, but hardly a snowball effect.

To be fair, business schools have worked extremely hard to attract more women to their classrooms.  They’ve launched special support programs, redoubled their recruiting efforts and expanded their marketing.  But major progress remains stubbornly low.

Some analysts blame corporations and their cultures for the larger phenomenon of unequal opportunities that can make business school ROI less appealing to women in the first place.  According to a study published in December 2010 by Catalyst, a nonprofit group focused on opportunities for women in the business world, the glass ceiling for women is still firmly in place.  It surveyed more than 4,000 MBAs who graduated between 1996 and 2007 and found significant differences in the career and compensation outcomes among men and women.

(For details, click this link to a recent article on the study posted on the U.S. News and World Report website on June 15, 2011.)

According to Professor Dart, we must begin looking more closely at the culture and actual experience women have in business schools–the female brand experience, if you will.  She believes many of the special outreach efforts business schools have made are misdirected.

“The tactics don’t work. The brochures focusing on women, the special events that schools produce to attract women don’t work, particularly if you don’t change the underlying issue,” she said.

The underlying issue in this case is part of the challenge facing all business school brands: How do you make sure that the brand experience and culture actually matches what the school has chosen to “advertise” to the world?

Professor Dart not so jokingly calls this the “dark abyss of culture” when it comes to many of the actual experiences that may be keeping women away from the MBA track–despite the often female-friendly face portrayed by institutional marketing. “It’s still a masculine culture in MBA programs,” she said.  “Women get assigned to study groups and, as many will tell you, often end up being the note takers.”

While that, per se, may sound trivial, it’s symptomatic of the need for new cultural norms to evolve at business schools if real progress in attracting and retaining more women to programs is to be made, says Professor Dart and others.

While this subject is complex, she advises schools to consider even these basic issues when focusing on managing the actual experience women have in their programs:

  1. Women want different things from careers and work–often their definitions of success are fundamentally different than those of men.  The program needs to acknowledge and reflect that fact.
  2. Female students don’t want to be singled out in the culture with things such as special networking programs “just for them.”  “Women in business school don’t want to be painted pink, they want their needs met,” said Dart.  Create opportunities for all students to network informally, they’ll do the rest, she added.
  3. Leadership styles of men and women often differ.  Women need to feel they can be confident and ambitious in business school, but in ways that represent their values, styles and approaches.
  4. To help dissolve certain stereotypes about women, roles need to be reversed.  For example, purposefully enabling work groups and other situations in which women dominate and have the opportunity to prove that they are worthy of moving up the corporate ladder, forces men outside their comfort zones.    (One recent female MBA graduate I spoke with told me: “I can’t count the number of times men have said, wow, she is actually really smart, after unwillingly being placed on a co-ed team.”)

But this is about more than business school, it’s about competitiveness.  Consider the following facts taken from a recent McKinsey & Co. study, if you need a good reason to keep pushing for change in the culture of business schools.

* When global business leaders were recently asked what they believed were the most important leadership attributes for success today, each of the top four–intellectual stimulation, inspiration, participatory decision-making, and setting expectations/rewards–were more commonly found among women leaders than men.

* Companies with more women on their executive committees have better financial performance. In terms of return on equity, the top-quartile group exceeds the group with no women by 41% (22% vs. 15 %).

* In terms of operating results, the more gender-diverse companies exceed the group with no women by 56% (17% vs. 11%).

Is there causality?  Ultimately, the study highlighted that complementary and diverse leadership styles is what drives the difference.  Sixty two percent of men and 90 percent of women at the C-level believe this is true……

Tim Westerbeck
Eduvantis, LLC

Eduvantis provides high level business consulting, brand strategy and marketing program execution services to higher education institutions globally, with unique expertise in business schools and corporate executive and leadership development programs.

About Tim Westerbeck

Tim Westerbeck is President of Eduvantis, LLC, a company dedicated to brand strategy, research, product development and innovation in global higher education. He has advised leading global corporations, nonprofit organizations, universities and professional schools, including the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Stanford Law School, The University of Sydney Faculty of Economics and Business, the American Medical Association, Yale School of Management, Duke University and many others. He writes and lectures on marketing strategy and is frequently quoted on marketing issues in major media, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, FORTUNE, Times of India, and many others. He also writes a periodic column for Business Week on global management education.
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3 Responses to Brand Culture and the Female MBA

  1. Heather C. Swain says:

    Professor Dart is absolutely on point when she talks about the necessity of examining the alignment between the brand promise and the experience within programs. And while no program or university can be responsible for the experience that comes after, I think recruitment into MBA and EMBA program may also suffer becasue women realize it is not only the culture and experience within programs that may not match the marketing rhetoric, but that the same may be true of the culture and experience they will encounter after exiting the program. Perhaps schools can best address this by making it clear that they are teaching the value of diverse leadership styles to all and in so doing contributing to cultural change over time.

  2. Teri Friel says:

    As a woman who grew up in the 70s and began my career in the 80s, I will say that there have been improvements in how women are viewed, hired and treated. However, as I have said many times to university administrators; students at all ages need role models that look like them so they can imagine themselves in the same roles. Male Ceos, VPs, deans of colleges, superintendents are all the norms that cause young women to view their chances of gaining such positions as slim. Once in the job market, young women I speak to still express dismay at being ignored in business meetings, having their ideas claimed by males that are not called out by colleagues, dismissed openly or just not given a chance to make an impact with poor assignments or no chance to shine a light on their capabilities. It makes me so sad that these things are still occurring 40 years later. I was at a meeting yesterday full of volunteers. There were four women and 14 men, the two leaders were men. The women spoke up fairly well but the men’s comments were more often noted. I will give kudos to the male leader who caught a comment from a woman that was tread upon by a man and made note of it for the group. Such behavior can encourage a woman to continue to contribute. However, it is still daunting to be in the minority and feel as though you have to “fight” for attention to your contributions.

    Perhaps EMBA programs need to focus more on the benefits of having women in your team for MEN, rather than trying to make special help programs for women. Such special programs make women feel like they are in the “slow” class rather than being given something more that will elevate them.

    In the end it will have to be men who make room for women and value them on their team, give support for attempts to contribute and encouragement for those smart women to really succeed. One of the comments after the referenced article about the percentage of women in MBA programs indicated that women are more likely to “leave for having children and choose a major that is less likely to view this negatively,” overlooks the issues that arise in making room for women in the workforce. I find it odd that men see women who leave to have children as a liability. It is a short trip to then understand why women choose not to strive for the higher ranks, when having a child is viewed as an impedence to good business. Why would a woman who wants a family ever sacrifice this for a job that is probably out of reach? A loss of hope results and women just say…I value my family over this company, feeling forced to make a choice. One department chair at a university where I worked once told a woman that she had chosen an “inconvenient time” to have a child for the university, pressured her to stay in an organic lab during her pregnancy and then pressured her to return to work when her child was in intensive care. I can bet that no man who announces the impending birth of his new child is neither told that nor given anything but congratulations upon the arrival of that child.

    The data in this article make it clear that women are a major positive force for companies that open the doors and help women be contributors. MBA and EMBA programs need to emphasize that for the new men entering the workforce and educate them to understand that helping women be successful not only will advance their own career but also the fortunes of the business.

  3. Bela Barner says:

    I think Professor Dart’s summary of the four critical issues for business schools to consider when evaluating the experience they can offer female students is right on target. As a first-time father who works primarily from home in order to spend as much time as possible with our new son while my better half ascends the ladder as a corporate attorney, I am starting to experience some of revelations of the reversal of traditional family household roles. Working and parenting places incessant demands on one’s time, and working longer is not necessarily working smarter. Campus-based programs will monopolize your time if you let them, and I think the most thoughtful programs understand that activities not central to learning or career development can cause stress and disruption rather than satisfaction.

    The other point that my wife would certainly echo is a distaste for feeling targeted or singled out strictly on the basis of being female. Creating opportunities for students to interact more informally, rather than in apparently socially-engineered ways, seems to be the best route for allowing individuals to make the best use of their time.