Welcome To Iowa State, Where Gender Equity Has Become Reality

David Spalding, dean of the Ivy College of Business at Iowa State University. Ivy photo


According to the 2018 Women in the Workplace study conducted by McKinsey & Company, women in the U.S. are dramatically outnumbered in senior leadership. Only about 1 in 5 C-suite leaders is a woman (and only 1 in 25 is a woman of color). It’s partly a pipeline problem: Only 39% of applicants to full-time, two-year MBA programs in the U.S. are female, according to the 2019 application trends study reported by the Graduate Management Admission Council.

It shouldn’t need to be said but Jackie Ulmer says it: Having gender balance is good for business and for MBA graduates.

“The MBA is considered the most direct pipeline to the executive level or C-suite of a business,” she says. “If we don’t have gender parity in our MBA programs, it becomes more difficult to reach the goal of parity in the boardroom. This directly benefits business because better performance is tied to more profitable business.” More women in B-school “is an asset, as it leads to having a diverse talent pool at the office,” adds Ivy College alumna Beth Ford, who earned her MBA in 1986 before becoming the first female president and CEO of Land O’Lakes Inc. — making her one of only 25 women running Fortune 500 companies today.

Paul Bodine, founder and CEO of MBA consultancy Admitify, says more gender-balanced C-suites is just a matter of time.

“Why do business schools want to achieve gender parity? Business schools get a lot of bad press for producing Michael Milkens, etc.,” he says. “They are sensitive about their reputations and even, pardon the expression, social justice, and gender parity is a social justice issue and a diversity and inclusion issue. If you believe that classes and organizations function better when they are diverse, you try to make them more diverse. Also, of course, the broader the total universe of potential MBA applicants, the easier it is for business schools to keep the doors open and tuition rising.”


Jackie Rees Ulmer. Ivy photo

Bodine says he thinks true gender parity at top B-schools is in reach but several years — perhaps five to ten — away.

“To me, the significant data point is the gender parity achieved long ago by medical schools,” he tells Poets&Quants. “Why shouldn’t business schools and MBA students have this same parity? Sure, medical education usually happens earlier in a woman’s career/life than business school, which partly explains why parity is harder for traditional two-year full-time MBA programs. But I think the real reason parity has been harder is that — unlike medicine — business is not a licensure-defined career path. Network effects are much more important to career advancement and it’s still a bro culture (e.g., overwhelmingly male C-suites).

“Since licensure will never happen in business and legislation requiring that a certain percentage of women be on corporate boards is currently unrealistic in the U.S., the only way forward for women is by building stronger networks. That’s where business schools can sustain gender parity: by making the case that the percentage of women in business and management is only and inexorably growing and that the schools are promoting those networks (it would help if they tried to achieve gender parity among faculty as well). Eventually, ‘sheer numbers’ will hopefully change the look of the boardroom and C-suite.”

Dean Spalding says the Ivy College is doing its part on the front end “by bringing more women into our MBA program, more women into our undergraduate business program, and by better positioning them for long-term success in their careers. Obviously it’s going to take time to show up in the C-suite. I think as we get more women with a good solid business education, they’re better positioned to take on the kind of line responsibilities that typically have led to the C-suite opportunities. And so I think that’s something that is important, and something that is going to play out over time.”

Jackie Ulmer says some women in the Ivy MBA will get to the C-suite faster than their colleagues. But for all women in the program and across the school’s graduate portfolio, the mantra is: patience.

“Many women in our MBA programs have backgrounds in engineering, technology, science,” she says, “so we’re hoping they’ll get there a little sooner, but I think it is a timing issue. It does take a while to get the people in our program to a point where they are entering the C-suite, so we’re just asking patience.”


Asked for his thoughts about the state of the MBA degree in general, and whether it will continue to be viable in Ames, David Spalding returns to the woes of small Midwestern programs — and vows a different outcome for the Ivy College.

It’s about meeting the hanging needs of students, he says.

“I know the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis last week called for shutting down their full-time MBA program, and also they were shutting down their full-time accounting master’s program, so if you look at it we’re certainly seeing that trend: Iowa eliminating their full-time MBA, Illinois eliminating their full time MBA, Wisconsin tried,” Spalding says. “But our team believes that people are still committed to being life-long learners. People may be seeing the full-time MBA as something that doesn’t fit them as well as it did a couple of years in the past — that they need to be in the middle of a very good economy, quit a job, and spend a couple of years in a full-time program. That doesn’t work for a lot of people.

“Like other schools, we’re cannibalizing ourselves a bit by upping the number of master’s degree programs that we have: We have a Master of Business Analytics, which is a primarily online program, and this past fall we launched Master of Real Estate Development that also is primarily an online program. We launched an executive MBA last fall which is focused on food, agriculture, and biosystems, really a unique program in the country. Arguably with those programs you could say that we’re cannibalizing the full-time MBA, but instead what I think is happening is, we are continuing to meet the needs of life-long learners. But I think our full-time MBA is going to continue to be a direction they want to go, and we’re proud to offer a highly ranking program if that’s a path they decide to go down. But we also offer these other alternatives to people that don’t want to stop working and want to do this more at their own pace, on their own time, while continuing to work.”

Jackie Ulmer notes that an Ivy College task force has examined the MBA to determine its long-term viability — and found it secure.

“The task force came back with a unanimous, very strong yes,” she says. “I think we feel good about our program for the short- and probably long-term as well. We’re just trying to meet people where they are in their life-long learning journey.”


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