Successful Women Fight ‘War for Talent’ on Two Fronts

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The potentially cutthroat nature of the business world has for many years seemed to caution women away from excelling in that male-dominated environment. And the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon, where women can see what is going on above them but are unable to get there, is widely reported and there are few signs of it abating.

Sprinkle on the stresses of these common perceptions, a poor return on work/life balance in business, that there is no support network for women and that many women in their early 30s may be starting a family while attempting to excel in business and you may have a reason for why women are so under-represented, especially at board level.

“I think women look at the business world and think, ‘Do I feel like this is a place I want to be?'” says Marie Wilson, director of the Ms. Foundation for Women, a New York-based advocacy group for women and girls. And a study published in 2000 called Gateway to Opportunity, embellishes this: “There is a small number of female mentors and role models, concern about balancing work and home life in the corporate world, and little encouragement from employers to secure an MBA.”

As a result, business schools have long reported under-representation by women on their courses – the average is around the one-third mark. And, according to recent statistics from the QS World MBA Tour, although 81% of women compared to 70% of men believe an MBA will improve their career prospects it is telling that women MBAs expect, on average, to be paid 30% less than men.

Many women also shied away from MBAs due to a perception that it is too analytical and too math-heavy. Pilar Chaparro, an MBA graduate of Italy’s SDA Bocconi says, “In the past, fewer women may have applied to MBAs due to the application process and structure of traditional educational programs. The traditional MBA programs positioned themselves heavily on the analytics and rational part of education. I believe that women are seeking for something more flexibility, community, learning experiences.”

Worse, in an exhaustive study of Fortune 1000 companies by Prof. Constance Helfer and colleagues from the Tuck School and Loyola University, 48% of the largest US firms have a complete absence of women in senior management positions.

But change is coming. The QS World MBA Tour reports a year-on-year increase in interest by women in MBA courses. At their prestigious international business school fairs in 2003, 28% of attendees were women while, by 2006 this had increased to 38%. In addition the proportion of women taking GMATs is booming by about 15% per annum. In 2005 there were 89,000 women GMAT test takers, an increase of 75% in five years.

The boom is due to a concerted marketing effort by business schools to correct the pro-male bias on campus. According to Nunzio Quacquarelli, Managing Director of the QS World MBA Tour, “Business schools are responding to trends in the marketplace, which in turn reflect shifts in public opinion. The diversity revolution in the USA has reached Europe and progressive companies are realizing that women form a major talent pool as well as a market force, are seeking to overcome stereotypes and to actively recruit more talented women. The best way to do this is to recruit on the world’s MBA campuses.”

Companies are responding to this swing in public opinion by implementing programs to encourage female recruits, and are scrambling over each other to trumpet this recruitment message to the women executives of the future. Citigroup has launched a program, CitiWomen, to enhance opportunities for its female staff. Hewlett Packard has volubly announced that it wants to be the employer of choice for women at all levels. Countless others, such as Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, and Booz Allen Hamilton have set up groups with names such as Women’s Advisory Board and Women’s Core Team with the specific intention of leveling the playing field.

Political correctness? No. To coin a phrase, diversity is not politically correct, it is profitable. And the men who dominate the vast percentage of boardrooms are learning to understand that the skills women bring to the workplace are valuable indeed. Says Prof. Dr. Tawfik Jelassi, Dean of ENPC School of International Management, “Women tend to bring an equilibrium and fairer treatment of both hard and soft skills, and they bring more corporate responsibility, value, cultural and personal ethics. They bring a fresh perspective to doing business that the corporate world needs.”

There are now more scholarships targeted at women than men, partly because females are more likely to be self-funded than males, who appear to have better access to company sponsorships.

Some business schools, realizing the needs of the workplace and of the women who are needed in business positions, are lowering the age of female entrants on their courses. This allows women who plan to raise families to do so and return to their successful business careers. At the QS Women in Leadership Panel Debate in September 06, a key forum addressed the question, “Having it all: Is it really possible?” Talented women seem to be discovering that, with good planning and support, they may not have to choose between family and career, but that it is possible to have both.

The Women in Leadership forums began as a London-based initiative but has now spread to Paris, Moscow, and Frankfurt in Spring 2007 and to New York in Autumn 2007 (see www.qsforums.com for more details). The growth of this event, which is attended by some of the world’s biggest companies such as Proctor and Gamble, KPMG, Morgan Stanley Cisco, Coned, IBM and Goldman Sachs, is another example of how diversity recruitment has risen up the agenda of major companies in recent years.

But is the MBA a career essential for women? Rose Martinelli, of the Chicago Graduate School of Business, believes that the modern MBA is a particularly valuable tool for women. “The MBA helps women build confidence and communication skills, both of which are vital to progress to senior management. Women are traditionally weaker at creating a network, and an MBA provides an extensive alumni network. But perhaps most significantly, an MBA helps establish credibility in the early stages of a woman’s career when she might otherwise be blocked or overlooked by more aggressive male colleagues. These positive experiences are feeding through into the number of female applicants.”

But what about the notorious ‘glass ceiling’ that women meet as they strive to succeed in a male-dominated business world? Isn’t this still putting them off business careers? Alison Conlon, an alum of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and current Associate Director of Program Management at Genzyme Corporation, makes a valid point. “While I was aware that a glass ceiling existed, I went ahead with an MBA because I would have already achieved a return on my business school investment by the time I reached a high enough position to be within reach of a glass ceiling.”

Stories of successful MBA qualified business-women emerge so regularly now that, in the US and Europe at least, it barely creates a stir. That their MBA study and experience has helped them immensely is unequivocal. Laura Bouvier is Senior Vice President of the Information Business Consultancy arm of Marriott International, Inc. Having worked on Wall Street for a year, she received a clear message. “Wall St. is great, but you won’t get anywhere without an MBA. Everything that was right about school happened to me at business school at Georgetown; I connected quickly to the local academic-business community and had a rich, total immersion MBA experience.”

Even for more recent graduates like Alison Conlon, the choice was clear. She continues, “I can absolutely say that I could not have been as successful as I am today without my Tuck experience. I was able to learn about the practical side of the business world while making life-long connections that I continue to use to this day.”

And she signs off with these assertive words that sum up what so many women worldwide are thinking: “I heard about the glass ceiling. Well, glass is easily broken after all…”