How This Woman Survived as The Only Woman in Business School
In 1970, Joëlle Le Vourc’h was wondering if she’d made a mistake by enrolling in ESCP Europe—the oldest business school in the world. At the time, she was the first and only woman in the school.
“A few students complained about my presence — they said I took a place from a man,” she tells the Financial Times.
Le Vourc’h had previously graduated from the Faculté de Pharmacie de Paris. She started at ESCP Europe to follow her business ambitions. For many women, secretarial labor was the only business-related work available to women. . But Le Vourc’h was determined to do more.
She studied for the diplôme, now Master in Management, and graduated in 1973—studying for one pre-masters year and two years for the masters. After graduating, she pursued a career in auditing and consulting and worked for the World Bank. Now Le Vourc’h is emeritus professor at the school, specializing in international accounting.
For many women, Le Vourc’h’s story is not surprising. Women are a minority in the business world. According to The Economist, “in 2005, the average cohort at schools surveyed for The Economist’s ranking of MBA programmes contained 30% women.” Fast-forward to 2015 and the number only reached up to 34%. Financial Times statistics found that in 2017, women only made up 35% of the MBA students in the top 100 programmes.
Le Vourc’h can recall plenty of discrimination during her time as the only woman student at ESCP. She says her professors never noticed when her male peers missed class, but if she didn’t make lecture, “everyone noticed.” She recalls how her economics professor would “single me out and ask me to answer the worst questions, to make me look stupid and show that women couldn’t cut the mustard, to show other men it was better with [just] men.”
During Le Vourc’h’s time at ESCP, the there were not even toilets or sports available to female students. Yet, the lack of amenities available to women allowed Le Vourc’h to establish friendships with female administrators. She says the process taught her the importance of building good relationships. “I learnt the functioning [of the organisation] and how things worked,” Le Vourc’h says.
When Le Vourc’h began applying to firms, she faced more scrutiny because of her gender. When she interviewed for Arthur Andersen, formerly one of the “Big Five” accounting firms, they said: “A woman in auditing? A client would never accept that. They wouldn’t accept a woman asking the questions.” Another firm told her that because she was a woman, she’d be unlikely to get salary increases or promotions.
Finally, Le Vourc’h found her place at Coopers & Lybrand, the firm that later became PwC after its merger with Price Waterhouse.
Her experience as the sole woman student in business school, Le Vourc’h says, gave her a great foundation for her career.
“I was used to being in a minority,” she says. “Compared to female auditors coming from university who didn’t have experience of dealing with mainly male colleagues.”
Le Vourc’h says she never considered herself a feminist when she was younger. Now, she thinks otherwise.
“I thought they were going too far,” she says. “I thought that by doing my job I would convince my managers. But maybe I’m wrong. I am surprised to see that there are still problems in business. It’s changed but not enough.”