Six Ways Women Can Support Each Other in Business School and Beyond

Mar 7, 2017
Tags: Admissions Process, B-School, Choosing the Right School, MBA

Jennifer Ninh

Submitted by Jennifer Ninh, Director of Recruitment and Enrollment Management, Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina.

The Financial Times 2017 Global MBA Ranking delivered a breadth of data on top business school programs, as it does every year. While there were positive increases in the percentages of female students enrolled in many programs, few schools have yet reached that elusive mark of equality where 50% of their class seats are taken by women.

The challenge is clear. Being part of an underrepresented minority means having to work even harder to have a powerful voice in business. However, it also creates an exceptional opportunity - one that forges strong bonds and establishes a support system that extends well beyond the classroom. As the saying goes- these are the ties that bind.

Since their founding in 2001, The Forté Foundation has been a phenomenal example of a national support organization and network that was formed by seizing this type of opportunity. Forté responded to key research presented by Catalyst, a non-profit with the “mission to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion”), and the University of Michigan. The publication "Women and the MBA: Gateway to Opportunity" highlighted women’s underrepresentation in business and sought to understand why women were enrolling at lower rates in business school (specifically MBA programs) compared to other professional graduate programs. Forté began and continues to work urgently to meet the mission of being a “non-profit consortium of leading companies and top business schools working together to launch women into fulfilling, significant careers through access to business education, opportunities, and a community of successful women.”

How can this opportunity be seized upon on business school campuses? How can women whom are passionate about closing the gender gap work to support each other immediately, and perhaps more importantly, work to create sustainable ties for future women who follow in their footsteps? Here are six ways women can support each other and create lasting change:

  1. Increase your career mobility with an MBA. Consider business schools, in particular, that are actively recruiting high-achieving female candidates. You’ll be part of a network of women whose achievements and ambitions catapult off another. It’s the “whole is greater than the sum of its sum of its parts” effect. You’ll find cues of support through program websites, email communications, and social media posts that highlight female students, alumna, and faculty.

  2. When arriving on campus as an incoming student, seek out organizations that support women. Does the school have a graduate business women’s organization? Join it. If not, get involved in student association committees that offer opportunities to advance goals that support women. You could also launch a new organization on campus, which may sharpen your entrepreneurial skills to showcase on your resume.

  3. If there is an established women’s club or organization on campus, find ways to further the mission. With smaller percentages of female students on some campuses, it is important to provide ways to expand reach. After all, current group members will soon graduate and move on. If a campus group is only MBA focused, for example, think about being inclusive of all graduate programs to increase numbers. This will increase the ranks of women supporting each other and be positive for the overall culture of the campus. 

  4. Start a book club. It’s true that adding more pages to the volumes of required reading is a daunting proposition, but a book club that is centered around works by female leaders who have faced (and surmounted) challenges of working in an underrepresented industry can be inspiring. Working through Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and similar readings as a group creates a close-knit support system and provides essential encouragement and inspiration to create unbreakable common ties between members. A bonus of reading a best seller in a small group forum is that it also helps you strengthen your conversational skills that will help in the job search, including interviewing and networking.

  5. Seek out female advisors and directors on the career management and alumni teams. These women will likely have connections to influential individuals and companies that share a desire to advance women through the ranks. They can also identify support systems that you might not know about. Create an annual (or even more frequent) event on campus that features inspiring female speakers. One tip: authors of new books are more likely to accept speaking invitations due to promotional benefits.  

  6. Invite high-achieving alumna or industry leaders to share success stories. Career coaches and experts can also provide important insights, and offer tools for salary negotiation as well as navigating job searches for roles or in industries that are historically underrepresented.

Most of all, seize the opportunity to build strong ties whenever and wherever you can find them. Some groups and events will already be established. In other instances, you’ll need to “think outside the box” to create new forums and foster new connections that advance shared goals. The women you meet in an MBA program will be part of an important network for the rest of your career. These bonds are enduring and can be life-altering, both professionally and personally. Each woman matters in the quest for parity, which will lead to greater opportunities for everyone.

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