February 13, 2012

How do Women Prepare Successfully for Corporate Leadership?

An article by Erica Dhawan in this week’s FORBES Magazine pointed out an interesting issue about the way business schools prepare students for corporate leadership – in particular, the way women students are prepared.  The article suggests that this issue may provide insight on how women advance (or don’t) in the corporate world.

The issue?  According to Dhawan, business schools generally prepare students – female and male – to become employees, and not citizens with complex lives in which careers play a major role.  This presents a difficult challenge especially to women, who often feel that the trade-off between a family life and career success must be “overcome” rather than navigated.

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…She emphasizes that MBAs should be discussing life and home issues as part of the planning of work at the business school level.

Beyond these future concerns, business school environments themselves may present additional obstacles to women, related to age, school population, and role models.   MIT Dean David Schmittlein reports that “On average, women are younger than men in the top 10 MBA programs…which may lead to a negative perception of their experience in the business school environment.”  He cites research indicating that women aren’t asked to participate as often as men in the classroom setting – and when they are, other students are less inclined to build on their comments.  There is also a lack of female professors at business schools, so the opportunity for a role model is limited.

Women more often volunteer for lower-level roles in the classroom as well – note-takers, creating meeting agendas, or making meeting arrangements.  A study by Professor Anne Huff entitled “Wives of the Organizations” underscores this behavior:

The traditional male/female dynamic is deeply rooted in the childhood experiences many of us share, but it is reinforced by the growing needs of organizations for relational skills.  Almost all the female professionals I know are overly committed to time consuming but often unnoticed and unrewarded aspects of organizational life.  Just as we are shedding traditional ‘wifely’ roles in the home, we are rapidly assuming them in the work place, especially in the professional ranks. 

The results seem obvious, as reported by Harvard Kennedy School (Professors Barbara Kellerman and Deborah Rhode, authors of 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 want to return to work, yet generally do not without significant career costs and difficulties.

Dhawan concludes that women’s advancement at work depends on an understanding that women and men need to re-define their roles at home – which begins in the MBA classroom – in addition to discussing life, home, and family issues as part of a life-career planning curriculum.

For Chrysalis, this redefinition begins much earlier – in the elementary and middle school environment – through Chrysalis After-School programs.  Understanding gender differences – and not as “inequities” – prepares girls to navigate the world with strength, resilience, and positive prospects for their future.