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An M.B.A. Student Asks: Where Are the Women?

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This article is reprinted by permission from CareerJournal.com

When I set foot in Berkeley's Haas School of Business last August, I quickly realized there was something glaringly missing... other women. In my first core statistics class of 60 students, there were 16 of us. The first cocktail party truly was a sea of men. This was a particularly odd feeling for me having just come from four years working at Lifetime Television for Women in New York and having graduated from Wellesley, a women's college in Massachusetts, prior to that.

Nearly half of all privately-held firms are at least 50% owned by a woman or women, according to data from the Center for Women's Business Research. And a U.S. Census Bureau report released in February shows women own 26% of the nation's 20.8 million non-farm businesses -- or about 5.4 million firms. Yet women make up on average 29% of enrolled full-time students in the top 20 M.B.A. programs.

Considering these statistics, why are women not leveraging their influence in the economy and honing their skills with an M.B.A.? Do women feel that an M.B.A. is just not worthwhile?

At Lifetime TV, I was used to being surrounded by intelligent, ambitious and inspiring women. And there's no doubt in my mind that women can be as brilliant business leaders as men. Why are women so scarce at Haas, when Berkeley's Law School perennially boasts of an over 50% female population?

It may be that M.B.A. programs aren't making enough effort to create a supportive environment for women within the school and in the curriculum. For instance, while there have been a few encouraging case studies that profiled powerful women in business dealing with career and family challenges, a couple of classes in my first semester demonstrated a surprising insensitivity to women's issues.

In one instance, a marketing professor introduced what he considered a seminal case study about Southwest's 1970s advertising campaign, which described how its hostesses were "taught how to take care of you" and "dressed in exciting new hot pants that really ought to please you." The professor lauded the company's successful marketing strategies, but never mentioned its objectification of women.

Another case focused on a hard-charging man's strength in dealing with long hours at work and the troubles that his spouse, a stay-at-home-mom, had in dealing with the situation. She appeared weak.

I find these types of representations of women unfortunate. As a woman in business school, I had hoped to be presented with images of strong women that I aspire to be. Many of my women friends and I consider portrayals like this a wake-up call -- reminding us that gender equality and respect haven't yet been achieved. In all, business schools must be cognizant that information presented in case studies, however innocently, reinforces stereotypes of women for better or worse.

Women face barriers in every area of society -- including the boardroom -- and the situation isn't going to improve until more women get in the M.B.A. pipeline and begin to initiate change from within the world's companies.

For this reason, business schools need to do everything they can to encourage women to apply. This includes holding women's recruiting events where alumnae can connect with prospective students, showcasing inspiring alumnae in marketing materials, supporting women financially during business school, and talking openly about the value of an M.B.A. that considers the unique work/life dilemmas that women face. This last point has been one of the most salient for my female friends and me. We anticipate -- and are daunted by -- the serious choices that we will have to make in the coming years as we seek to balance careers and family life. Business schools can address this issue by initiating discussion on campus between students and women who have found success (or not) in balancing a post-M.B.A. career and family. Also, business schools should take a leadership role in spotlighting companies that are supportive of women with regards to hiring practices, benefits and social responsibility.

As a publicly-funded institution, Berkeley is hampered by California's State Proposition 209, which prohibits schools from giving preferential treatment to any individual on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. Thus, Berkeley's administration cannot offer women-only scholarships or target women at recruiting events.

The student-run Women in Leadership Club has stepped up its efforts to network with more prospective women applicants, build strong ties to alumnae in the business world who can be proponents for the school and lead fall workshops for women applying to MBA programs. And these efforts have helped to keep Berkeley's female enrollment around the national average of 29%. But it is not enough.

My first semester in business school didn't prove as female-friendly as I would have hoped, however, I'm not discouraged. I've been delighted by the camaraderie among the women M.B.A. students and know that I am building a valuable network of friends. And while there are few women in the M.B.A. program, I'm pleased to say they aren't shying away from leadership roles. Women hold presidencies in the real estate, health care, Hispanic, net impact and wine industry clubs and the new editor-in-chief of the school's newspaper is a woman.

Having a diverse classroom -- and corporate environment -- is an asset for everyone, not just women. Men will have the opportunity to hear and build respect for women as leaders and will take this positive experience out into the world. Additionally, as business becomes increasingly global, companies will need managers with varied backgrounds who can understand and market services to specific niches across the globe. Business will operate at its full potential when it takes advantage of the entire capacity of its work force.

As Carly Fiorina steps down as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, there should be countless qualified women able to take her place. Business schools have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to make this happen. It's just good business.

-- Ms. Harrold is a first-year student at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley.

This article is reprinted by permission from CareerJournal.com, ©2003 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.