What I didn't learn in business school
When she started her MBA program at a top-10 school last year, Ramona Dickinson had every reason to think positively about business education. Bright-eyed and optimistic, Dickinson had one central expectation of her schooling: that she'd learn the essentials of leading a modern business in a stimulating, inclusive environment.
What Dickinson encountered instead was estrangement. She found herself negotiating a largely male-dominated program whose culture had an awfully close resemblance to that of a fraternity.
Unfortunately, Dickinson's experience is not unique among women MBAs. While the vast number of women deem their MBAs as valuable once conferred, many cite a shared perception that their ideas were dismissed in school, that late nights fueled by alcohol are a required part of fitting in socially, and that the b-school environment can be rather valueless (a Rutgers study shows that MBAs are more likely to cheat than students of other disciplines).
Despite anecdotes and findings like these, my own experience in business school was largely positive. I attended a forward-thinking, consulting-oriented program for working professionals at Johns Hopkins' Carey Business School. What I brought to the table was not your usual fare: for one, I had bachelor's and master's degrees in social work and had worked on the HR side of business consulting, neither of which garners you huge respect in business. Nonetheless, over my two-year tenure I found that my ideas were embraced and my background forgiven.
So what was missing?
Female role models. With only one female professor, and next to no women in power profiled in our case studies, the outlook appeared pretty dismal for a young woman aspiring to lead. What was lacking most was a conversation -- a connection -- between women at the top and those of us coming up. I suddenly realized that while I couldn't impart how to make it to the C-suite, surely there was something I could do to move the dialogue along.
At the encouragement of my professor, Lindsay Thompson, I compiled a "dream team" of women business leaders I wanted to interview. This list included women who hadn't already been covered extensively in the media, but who had an important story to tell. These executives were known not only for their results, but the respect they earned from those around them. Among those I contacted were Dominique Schurman, CEO of Papyrus; Jamie McCourt, then-president of the LA Dodgers; and Mei Xu, founder and CEO of Chesapeake Bay Candle. I told these women about the hole I saw in the leadership development literature. I explained that together we could equip young women with tools to propel their careers forward.
To my amazement, these women and many more said "yes" to being interviewed.
By the end of 2008, I had conducted 30 interviews with a far-reaching group of women executives, each at the top of their field. I was so deeply changed by what I heard in those mentoring sessions that I resolved to turn my research into a book I could share with other women.
After all, the issues I faced as a young woman in business weren't that unique. While I was conducting interviews for the book, I was also working fulltime as a management consultant -- an underpaid one.
I knew I needed to negotiate for a better compensation package but didn't know where to start. One morning in April 2008, I did an interview with Naomi Earp, then the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As it happened, Earp was a big proponent of women negotiating more often and this topic emerged as a major theme of our interview. Although not shocking considering Earp's role and the fact that she's a lawyer by training, her words lit a fire in me.
I was so motivated up by what I heard in that interview that I made an appointment that afternoon with my boss. I followed the steps that Earp laid out. I not only had a case--complete with data that I had prepared--but I found a way to prepare emotionally. I even role-played the negotiation twice with a colleague!
I proceeded to ask my boss for a 25 percent raise that day, which was not only granted to me, but exceeded.
To this day, I am certain about one thing: these interviews were the best education I will ever receive.
There's no reason why the unwritten rules of succeeding in business need to remain a secret. It's time for b-schools to wake up to the fact that many of their learning environments aren't hospitable to women. Until women become one of the very "strategic initiatives" that business schools are famous for teaching students about, women's proportions in MBA programs will remain low.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Some post-grads are being welcomed by workplaces that truly make the development of women leaders a priority. Procter & Gamble for example, actually ties executive compensation to management's track record of promoting women upward. Xerox is doing wonderful things to connect women with role models. They've mixed the concepts of social networking with "match.com" to pair mentors and mentees in lasting relationships. The beauty? Mentors and mentees don't ever have to meet, let alone be co-located. If companies like these can make an open, honest commitment to developing women leaders, why can't MBA programs?
Women need business schools and business schools really need women. It's time for programs with real gender balance that help women rise to their potential both in the classroom and on the job.
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