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Haas MBA Students Lead Gender Parity Drive

Haas students (L-R) Ryann Kopacka, Jesse Silberberg, Catherine Andresen, Katie Benintende, and corporate sustainability professor Kellie McElhaney Haas students (L-R) Ryann Kopacka, Jesse Silberberg, Catherine Andresen, Katie Benintende, and corporate sustainability professor Kellie McElhaney

Haas students (L-R) Ryann Kopacka, Jesse Silberberg, Catherine Andresen, Katie Benintende, and corporate sustainability professor Kellie McElhaney

In her first semester at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business, Catherine Andresen was one of many female students who began noticing the major players in cases under study were men. Then, during one of the last class sessions in an organizational behavior class, the students were finally presented with a female protagonist in a case.

“And in this case, she totally screwed everything up,” recalls Andresen, originally from North Carolina, who came to Haas after working in international development consulting for Deloitte in Washington, D.C.

It wasn’t just male-centered cases that highlighted for Andresen and other students the gender problem at Haas, and at other business schools. All they had to do was look around: when Andresen entered with the class of 2015, women made up only 29% of students, and that number had actually dropped from 32% the year before. Add some listening to the looking around, and the gender-representation issue really stood out. “The biggest piece was simply feeling as though there are not enough women in the classroom to lend that voice, just bringing a female approach to cases, or bring a different approach to problem solving,” Andresen says.

As it goes in business school, so it goes in business, particularly at the top. Women make up only about 35% of the U.S. MBA student population. The United Nations reports that women hold 43% of senior and middle management positions in the U.S., but fewer than 5% of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOS. Only about 19% of board seats in S&P 500 companies are held by women.

FEMALE LEADERS BEHAVE DIFFERENTLY: McKINSEY

And, according to McKinsey & Company, the gender imbalance is bad for business. “Some leadership behaviors, which are more frequently applied by women than by men in management teams, prove to enhance corporate performance and will be a key factor in meeting tomorrow’s business challenges,” says McKinsey’s “Women Matter 2” report from 2008, when fewer than 3% of Fortune 500 firms had women at the helm.

In major companies, and in business schools, gender parity has importance that goes beyond fairness and equality of opportunity. In corporations, according to McKinsey, of nine behaviors that help organizational performance, women use five more frequently than men: people development; setting expectations and rewards; role modeling; inspiring; and participative decision making.

In business school, having far more men than women in classrooms creates an environment that stifles input from women, Andresen says. “When the atmosphere is leaning toward one gender or another it just by natural causes dissuades the other gender from communicating as comfortably,” Andresen says. “You’re just more inclined to take a back seat just simply because communication styles are different.”

It wasn’t just female students who took note of the gender disparity at Haas. Jesse Silberberg, another class of ’15 MBA candidate, arrived in Berkeley after working in strategic operations for Deloitte in Boston, following an internship at tech startup DIY.org. In those positions, he’d worked on teams that either had gender balance or more women than men. “For me, that was the status quo,” Silberberg says. “That diversity led to better performance and better outcomes.” He came to Haas expecting to work with smart, capable women, and that’s what he found – except there weren’t as many females there as he had anticipated.

MALE MBA STUDENTS AND ‘GROUPTHINK’

Haas founder Cora Flood - fold3.com image

Haas founder Cora Flood – fold3.com image

In the study group where Haas placed him, four out of five students were men, and two groups he was in for project-based classes were entirely male, Silberberg says. “The teams that I was a part of before business school that had more diversity were more effective and able to be more nimble,” Silberberg says. In a Haas blog post, Silberberg wrote, “I noticed subtle differences about working in male-dominated groups. We were quicker to form norms based on known (or assumed) similarities in past experiences. We were less structured in how we approached our work and more susceptible to groupthink. Our final work products were very high quality, but largely due to individual team members stepping up at particular points in a project.”

Unlike Silberberg, Katie Benintende had come into Haas from a corporate environment dominated by men. Benintende had been with Johnson & Johnson, where she’d worked as an engineer, then in operations and sales. She’d read about professor Kellie McElhaney, faculty director of Haas’s Center for Responsible Business, who had developed women-in-business classes focused on business cases for investing globally in development of women. Benintende had also noted that Haas was founded in 1898 by a woman, Cora Jane Flood. “I was really excited to come here to see what it would be like to me in a more gender equitable environment,” Benintende says.