Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou doesn’t know what it’s like to be a man in charge of a business school. And she doesn’t particularly care.
Bajeux-Besnainou, professor of finance and dean of Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, is looking forward to the day when she doesn’t get questions about gender anymore. Such questions are irrelevant, she says.
Things now are as good as they’ve ever been, she tells Poets&Quants, and while more work needs to be done, she expects things to keep getting better.
“There are a lot of areas that need to be improved — I think it’s a work in progress,” says Bajeux-Besnainou, who spent 21 years at George Washington University School of Business, the last three as associate dean of undergraduate programs, before joining McGill in September 2015. In that time she had three children, including two daughters, and saw dramatic changes occur across the academic landscape.
“I have two daughters of my own, and I’ve always told them that whatever it is, they’ll be able to achieve it. So I don’t see huge obstacles anymore. I don’t know how it’s different to be a man in my position because I’m not a man, but I’m really hoping for a day when this will be not even an issue anymore.”
IDENTIFYING A STRATEGY
At Desautels, gender equality is rapidly becoming a reality in the student ranks, with women comprising 51% of undergraduate students and a “large proportion” at the graduate level in such programs as the school’s MBA in Japan, “which is very unusual especially in Japan, so we’re very proud of that,” Bajeux-Besnainou says. She also cites a program in China with a high number of women and a joint EMBA program with HEC Montreal that boasts a cohort with more women than men. The school also launched a Master of Management in Finance in summer 2016, she says, whose very first class is one-third women.
Of course, there are challenges, as Bajeux-Besnainou knows all too well. In particular, as at most other B-schools, the graduate finance concentration lacks gender diversity. “At the undergrad level, half the students are women, but when it comes to graduate finance the proportion drops,” Bajeux-Besnainou says. “So that’s something that I’m trying to figure out how we can correct that.”
That’s what her first year on the job has been about: identifying a strategy and trying to put that strategy in place to correct things she’d like to see changed. That includes at the faculty level, where Bajeux-Besnainou acknowledges a need to attract more women, particularly in finance. “We are trying to enact a strategy to hire more women finance professors,” she says. “It’s very important that the students feel from the professors that this is an area that is very open to women as well.”
‘EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE’
Her first year north of the border has also been about adjusting to new surroundings. After so long at GWU, in the epicenter of American politics and culture that is Washington, D.C., it’s been a real adjustment for Bajeux-Besnainou to live and work in Montreal.
It helps, in a school that is English-speaking and a city that is French-speaking, that the Paris native is bilingual. It also helps that no challenge daunts her: When she started at GWU, she was the only woman in the Finance Department.
“Coming from Europe I was not familiar with affirmative action and deliberate policies trying to find a better balance in gender in particular, and I’ve seen how this can work, and I feel that it’s important to have very definite responses to these kinds of issues,” Bajeux-Besnainou says.
“My advice is, if you want to work in academia, in business, just follow your dreams. Sometimes you think that there are barriers to your dreams, but at the end a lot of things are possible, and I feel that we are very lucky to be in very progressive societies where everything is possible.”