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The State of Women in Business School and the Business World

The world's women leaders are at the top of the pack when it comes to dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Do women in business have the same success? Here's a closer look at the latest news on women in business.

Aug 27, 2020
  • Education
The State of Women in Business School and the Business World

The success of female-led nations during COVID-19

In mid-May, New Zealand celebrated a major victory in having managed not just to control coronavirus outbreaks but to nearly eradicate them. Meanwhile, Germany and Finland both had significantly lower death tolls than their neighbors, while Taiwan’s testing, contact tracing, and isolation measures were extremely successful at containing the virus, without the implementation of a full national lockdown.

According to the New York Times’ Amanda Taub, these achievements may not be attributable to the leaders themselves, but to the fact that the countries they represent are more inclusive. “Having a female leader is one signal that people of diverse backgrounds — and thus, hopefully, diverse perspectives on how to combat crises — are able to win seats at that table,” Taub proposes.

This isn’t to say women leaders didn’t make decisions that led to better results. For example, many female-led countries went into lockdown earlier than others. According to the results of a study published by the World Economic Forum, there are several potential factors in play, including that women may be less risk-averse, with a greater focus on the value of human lives over the economy. They’ve also adopted a “more democratic and participative style” with strong communication skills which may be “key attributes in managing a crisis.” The report concludes, “Being female-led has provided countries with an advantage in the current crisis.”

According to sociology professor Kathleen Gerson, however, it’s not as cut-and-dry as it may seem. Women leaders are more likely to have come to power in political cultures which already support and trust the government. “So [they’ve] already got a head start,” Gerson told The Guardian.

Differences in leadership

A survey of more than 60,000 employers found that as women take on more leadership roles, evidence mounts for the advantages of their increasing representation. A key finding of the report revealed businesses led by women are perceived better than those helmed by men in all aspects of strategy; a critical leadership driver. The effective leadership of women has also been linked with facilitating team engagement which in turn correlates with less turnover, greater profitability, higher productivity, and reduced absenteeism.

It’s easy to assume women leaders excel in areas traditionally regarded as women’s strengths, such as nurturing, relationship building, and exhibiting integrity. However, they also score higher on key competencies such as taking initiative, driving for results, and others often attributed to men, according to the Harvard Business Review. Which begs the question: why are so many men leaders when data shows that women can do the job equally well or even better? Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It) author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic proposes, “There’s a pathological mismatch between the qualities that seduce us in a leader and those that are needed to be an effective leader.”

According to new research from the UK, meanwhile, London-listed companies are a staggering 10 times more profitable when women comprise more than a third of executive roles. Yet just 14 of the 350 largest companies listed are led by women, while 15 percent of FTSE 350 companies have no female executives at all. Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May implored current leaders to do their part to address the underrepresentation of women. “Every single male CEO who looks around his boardroom table to see nine out of 10 male faces staring back at him needs to ask himself what he is doing to make his business one which his daughter or granddaughter can get [in on]," May urged.

Where women are making up ground

We still have a ways to go to achieve gender equality in the business world, but there are many reasons to be optimistic. While overall MBA applications were on a downward trend as of last fall, MBA programs were seeing higher percentages of women applicants than ever before. This is especially good news given that women with MBA degrees have the potential to earn higher wages.

Executive MBA Council executive director Michael Desiderio told CNBC, “Historically, the legal profession and the medical profession seemed to be better alternatives for women. It seemed like there was more opportunity in those two fields than in business at the higher echelons, and slowly I think we’re starting to see that change. Is it changing fast enough? No. But it’s changing.”

As of fall 2019, women’s enrollment in full-time MBA programs had reached approximately 39 percent compared to 36 percent in 2015 Forté Foundation CEO Elissa Sangster says, “At this pace, we’re confident we’ll reach our goal of 40 percent women’s enrollment by 2020.” Meanwhile, some MBA programs are already exceeding this target with female enrollments of 45 percent and more.

Regional trends for women in business

Female entrepreneurs are having unprecedented success in the Middle East, founding and leading top brands across a range of industries, including fintech, e-commerce, e-groceries, and cybersecurity.

In Latin America, meanwhile, women are credited with leading the region’s booming “fintech revolution.” In fact, the region lays claim to five times as many female-founded fintech companies as the global average. This is especially noteworthy given the financial services industry has historically been male-dominated with women holding less than 10 percent of senior roles. As COVID-19 is fueling even more demand for fintech services, insiders say more opportunities are looming. Runa CEO and co-founder Courtney McColgan told Crunchbase, “My hope is that we will see a boom in new businesses started out of Covid-19, and the percent of those that are founded by women will be significant.”

While women in Asia still face barriers, many are breaking through. In honor of March’s International Women’s Day, Nikkei Asian Review featured the stories of 11 female trailblazers, including everyone from Netflix India’s director for international original film Srishti Behl Arya to Japan’s Wantedly’s founder and CEO Akiko Naka.

Women leaders are also on the rise in Africa, spawning a first-of-its-kind Pan-African compilation of the continent’s leading women by Forbes Africa. The report says of these women, “They are reshaping history, closing inequalities and pioneering new avenues of wealth creation and in turn, lifting others with them.”

The World Economic Forum reveals while the world is still a century away from gender parity, nine countries are stepping up as Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators, including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Panama, Peru, Egypt and France.

Meanwhile, Nordic countries Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland continue to be the nations leading in terms of closing the gender gap. Saadia Zahidi, managing director of the World Economic Forum, says, “The reason behind this is that they broadly tend to value human capital and their economies. Second, they have good social safety nets in place. And third, they make it possible for parents to combine work and family.” This contributes to 95 percent of women in Norway being in work and 86 percent in Iceland, compared to the global average of 55 percent, which shows there is work to be done on gender equality worldwide.

On what we can learn from successful women leaders

We’ve already addressed how women leaders can make profound top-down contributions. Which begs the question: how do they get to the top in the first place? TechRepublic recently investigated the qualities behind women’s ascents to management and executive roles. Mondo vice president of strategic partnerships Monika Dowal explains, “I had to overcome a feeling of inadequacy. I had to make sure I had a positive attitude and kept my eye on the prize.”

We’d be remiss to ignore the women leaders already paving the way for others, as highlighted by Forbes’ recent roundup of The World’s 20 Most Powerful Women in Business.

And, of course, women -- and men, for that matter! -- have a lot to learn from other women. Entrepreneur recently checked in with 10 successful women leaders to learn more about their approaches to creating positive work culture. Josephine Fan, president of J. Fan Holdings, asserted, “Know ourselves and our values and to stick with those values even if they hurt us in the short-term, since being trustworthy is the strongest foundation you could have upon which to build a strong work environment and gain a loyal customer base.”

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Joanna Hughes


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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