On Women’s Day, A Mixed Picture Of Progress

On International Women’s Day, two new surveys offer a mixed picture for women in graduate business education and business in general.

One survey shows that while progress has been made in advancing women in positions of business leadership, significant work needs to be done to achieve gender parity — including work in the business-school-to-top-companies pipeline. The second shows a growing inclusion of women in MBA programs while also indicating that more needs to be done to fully address gender imbalance. And the CEO of an organization dedicated to achieving gender equity in both spheres agrees that the pair of polls reflects the reality now faced by women working to find equal footing with men.

“I think we’ve seen a lot of the metrics move, and in a positive direction,” says Elissa Sangster, CEO of the Forte Foundation, a nonprofit consortium of leading schools and major companies whose mission is to launch women into fulfilling and impactful careers through access to business education. “And I think there is a great deal of healthy conversation around what needs to change. So, to me, there’s positive momentum, but we still have a long way to go before we’re going to see gender equity in the workplace.

“I think companies have addressed a lot of the problems that women were facing, but I think some of the things that come out in these studies are very clear indicators of what needs to change to see women advance. And we can do a lot of work on the pipeline.”


The first survey, by management consulting company Korn Ferry and The Conference Board, a business membership and research group organization, shows that despite recent strides toward gender equity in the workplace, inequity in company leadership remains a significant issue. As part of the study Effective Leadership Development Strategies at Pivotal Points for Women: Chief Human Resources Officers and Senior HR Leaders Speak, researchers surveyed nearly 300 human resource executives and found that while 62% of respondents believe representation of women in leadership positions has improved during the last five years, 66% believe there still is inadequate representation of women in leadership positions in their organization today.

The study also found a high level of dissatisfaction with female representation in leadership roles, with 66% saying the number of women at the vice president level at their own organization was inadequate, and 65% agreeing there is not enough female representation in the C-suite.

“They’re clearly talking to the HR professionals who are working this space who are probably predisposed to seeing change happen, but not happy with the progress being made in their own firms,” Sangster tells Poets&Quants. “And my take is that they probably have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on in their organizations, and  they’re probably never satisfied with the progress of change.”

The findings largely track with Forte’s research, Sangster says.

“I thought it matched up nicely that women are frustrated with not only the pay gap, but also the opportunities of assignments they’ve been given,” she says. “And I think we do see that inherent, kind of unconscious bias at play at the manager level — and that perhaps women are not being given the same types of assignments or being given those opportunities to have the high-profile assignments that get them the recognition that they need in order to get that advancement. This seems very aligned with everything that we have found out from individual women.”


According to the Korn Ferry/Conference Board survey, the root of the problem can be traced to the talent pipeline. Half of respondents believe there are not enough women in the pipeline to fill open leadership positions, and 40% do not believe women are gaining the experiences necessary to help them advance. The authors of the study say “incremental actions will not be enough to close the gap, and that leaders must disrupt the status quo, take a strong position, and focus on programs that drive greater outcomes.”

Sangster acknowledges the progress in MBA programs has been slow but points out that it is still progress. “I think that we’re seeing the pipeline for MBA women increase,” she says. “And depending on what company you’re talking about, they may see a better or worse scenario in terms of their own pipeline. However, we’re still not seeing women pursue finance in the MBA program or at the undergraduate level, in the same way that the men are. So, it’s not balanced. It’s more 30-70, in terms of the gender pipeline there.

“So we’d like to see that improve. I think it’s similar to what’s going on in the STEM profession. We’re seeing fewer candidates in finance and decision sciences, and operations management, and business analysis. All of those things look very similar to a 30-70 profile.

“What we often see is that when you’re coming out of an undergraduate university, women are highly represented in liberal arts and education and not as highly represented in business, engineering, math, science, all of those things. So, when you look at the mix and the skill set of the pipeline, there probably is some concern by employers. And one of the things that we’re trying to do is help young women who are in the university space understand at their senior year what career readiness looks like. It’s not just having a degree in your back pocket.”

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