A version of this post first appeared at Forbes.com
Last week's Sloan Women in Management Conference on 'Innovating Through Adversity' posed tough questions about the systemic gender inequalities that still exist in business today. Marissa Mayer of Google, Jennifer Siebel Newsom of "Miss Representation," and Fredericka Whitfield of CNN took the stage to share their insights on women's advancement in business. Behind the scenes, a fantastic team of ambitious MBA women organized the conference at one of the nation's top business schools.
But do business schools really prepare women for senior leadership roles with companies?
As a graduate of Wharton's undergraduate program and an MBA candidate at MIT's Sloan School of Management, I'd say no. Here's why.
Business schools primarily think about female and male students as future employees rather than as women and men with complex lives for whom employment is a significant, but not the only, activity. If MBA programs truly want to develop principled leaders, they need to address the different sets of concerns students can expect to encounter in the classroom, as well as when they graduate and enter the workforce.
Women in MBA programs often feel like they have to "do it all," and that the frequent tradeoffs inherent in a busy work and family life (often leading to a high level of stress and anxiety) are something to be overcome, not managed. Imagine the possibilities if business schools gave the private concerns of their students a genuine place in the planning of work through courses and programs on gender and life issues, such as a talent management course for both men and women, a case study in all leadership courses on the impact of diverse groups on career and home dynamics and continued support for gender-related conversations and discussions.
"The last frontier for women's advancement at work is understanding how men and women re-define roles at home," says Anne Weisberg, head of Diversity at Blackrock, a global financial management firm and author of Mass Career Customization: Aligning the Workplace with Today's Nontraditional Workforce. She emphasizes that MBAs should be discussing life and home issues as part of the planning of work at the business school level. Currently there is no place for these issues, but these topics need to be integrated into the curriculum.
The after-effects are clear. According to Harvard Kennedy School Professors Barbara Kellerman and Deborah Rhode in their book, "Women and Leadership: State of Play and Strategies for Change," "one in three women with MBAs are not working full time, compared with one in twenty men. A large portion of these women do, however, want to return to work, yet generally do not without significant career costs and difficulties." Both men and women need to be made aware of these costs and difficulties starting in business school -- or companies are going to lose good employees and face major transition costs.
Aside from future concerns for women, there are many areas in current business school environments where women face different challenges than men do based on age, participation and who they consider role models. The implications of not addressing gender-specific challenges in the workplace end up hurting both men and women's recognition of gender differences in leadership positions.
"On average, women are younger than men in top ten MBA programs," says MIT Sloan Dean David Schmittlein. "This may lead to a negative perception of their experience in the business school environment." What's more, he cites research that "has shown that women aren't called to participate as proportionally or as often in the classroom. When women are called on, the next person is less inclined to build on their comments."
According to a study entitled Wives of the Organization, by Leipzig Professor Anne Huff, women tend to volunteer more often for maintenance-level roles such as note-taking, opportunities that they may not get recognition for. Huff's research shows that gender is an area to be further investigated in MBA programs.
There are also clear differences for women in terms of role models and faculty at business schools. "Some of the most well regarded and least well regarded faculty are women," says Schmittlein. Yet women still make up a much smaller proportion of faculty across business schools.
While I believe hosting women in management conferences at the nation's top business programs is an important first step to building a female talent pool, women senior leaders and business school leadership must recognize how gender differences in business school play a major role in and out of the classroom as well in future careers. In today's age, this issue is not just for women, but is crucial for both men and women to reach their individual and often shared potential in work and life. There is a need for new dialogue across MBA programs that address how gender plays a role in business school environments and subsequently in building a pipeline of female leaders in companies and on boards.
Erica Dhawan is a writer and speaker on next generation leadership and co-founder of Galahads: The Secret Society for Kickass Women. Join the conversation at ericadhawan.com and follow her on twitter @edhawan.
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