SCAN the “who we are” section of many of big companies’ websites, and you are confronted by a preponderance of photographs of white men with greying temples wearing Windsor knots and rictus expressions. It can be a disheartening experience, only tempered by the knowledge that were the corporate website of 2016 replaced with the corporate handbook of 1986, men might not just be a majority, but a totality of the faces contained within.
Women are closing the gender gap in representation, if slowly. Now, four in every 10 graduates of MBA degrees in the United States are women, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an accreditation board, and two thirds of those in industries popular with MBAs report job satisfaction. According to Fairygodboss, a website on which women share opinions on their workplace, two-thirds of women believe consultancy treats both sexes fairly.
Still, there are huge gaps. Sixty per cent of firms surveyed by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a research body, had no women on their board; half had no executives in the c-suite; and one in three businesses had neither. Research by Mercer, a consultancy, found that the proportion of women diminishes on the journey from the cubicle to the corner office. One third of managers in the businesses Mercer surveyed are women. Move up a level to senior management, and that share drops to one in four. Just one in five executives are women. Even that hides disparity among the regions. While the consultants forecast that by 2025, European businesses will employ women in nearly four in 10 professional level roles, in Asia that will barely reach one in four.
Why some firms steadfastly refuse to employ women at the highest levels of their organisations is a mystery. The Peterson survey found that companies in which a third of leadership positions are occupied by females have on average 6% higher net profit margins. “While increasing the number of women directors and CEOs is important, growing the percentage of female leaders in the c-suite would likely benefit the bottom line even more,” says Stephen Howe of EY, a professional services firm which co-sponsored the survey. And, as any shrewd businesswoman knows, the bottom line is not the be-all and end-all for firms. “Besides sheer profitability, [employing female leaders] makes businesses a good place to be,” says Elissa Sangster, executive director of the Forte Foundation, a consortium of business schools and companies promoting women’s place in industry.
Business schools are not exempt from criticism. Some are inching towards gender parity, but progress has been painstaking. In 2005, the average cohort at schools surveyed for The Economist‘s ranking of MBA programmes contained 30% women. By 2015, it had nudged up to 34%. Only one school in our top 100—Lancaster University Management School in Britain—admits as many women as men. That should be a source of shame. In many other tertiary education courses women now outstrip their male counterparts.
Still, Ms Sangster believes that equality in classes is likely in many schools in a further 10 years. The goal then is that good practice in business school will feed through to business more generally. “What we hope is that men and women will go to business schools and see women, and that will be something that seems normal,” she says. Then, when they graduate and go out into the business world to companies where the headshots of women make up one in every 10 photographs on a corporate website, they will look askance and question why that is.
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