The EU Says Businesses Must Have More Women. Can Europe’s B-Schools Meet The Moment?

Women have made huge gains in representation in the MBA programs at the top B-schools in the U.S. and globally, according to the nonprofit Forte Foundation, but still lag behind EU targets for board representation

The European Union is pushing business to make greater strides toward equality for women in the workplace — but the latest move, representing the culmination of 10 years of effort, faces significant hurdles, particularly where it relates to the pipeline of talent from European business schools.

By 2026, per a newly passed mandate announced this month, all publicly listed companies of more than 250 employees in the 27 EU member countries must have boards comprised of 40% or more women — or the “under-represented sex,” which is taken to mean women in all but a few cases. As reported in Forbes, the legislation is legally binding, and includes provisions for fining companies that fall short. “Board appointments,” wrote Olivia Peluso on June 8, “even have the potential to be canceled for non-compliance with the law.” The EU has set an additional overall target for women of 33% in all senior roles such as CEO and COO.

If the composition of MBA classes at the leading business schools in Europe is any indication, European businesses face challenges in meeting the new mandates. Women’s representation in the MBAs at such schools as HEC Paris, IE and IESE business schools in Spain, and INSEAD has traditionally lagged, especially in comparison to peer schools in the United States, averaging in the low to mid-30% range compared to 40% or more at the top U.S. schools. 

A FEW FRENCH SCHOOLS BUCK THE TREND

After stalling in 2020 amid the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, women’s enrollment in MBA programs globally rebounded in 2021, reaching an all-time high of 41% last fall at the nonprofit Forté Foundation’s 56 member schools. A Poets&Quants analysis of the MBA programs at the top B-schools in the U.S. showed that women’s enrollment grew at 14 of 26 top-ranked U.S. B-schools, with 15 of those schools — including all but one of the top 10 — reporting 40% or more women in their MBA student ranks.

A closer look at European schools via their class profiles and data from The Financial Times‘ Global MBA ranking, however, reveals they — and not their U.S. counterparts — are dampening global progress for women. HEC Paris reported 34% women in its latest MBA class; INSEAD reported 37%. Notably, some French schools far outpaced their peers both in France and across Europe: ESSEC reported 51% women in its latest class, while both ESCP and EDHEC reported 46%. But the picture is less bright in other major EU countries:

  • In Germany, WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management reported 36% women; Mannheim Business School had just 33%; and ESMT Berlin had just 28%;
  • At IMD in Switzerland, women comprise 35% of MBA students;
  • In Italy, SDA Bocconi School of Management reported 37% women;
  • In Spain, IE Business School had 33%, while IESE had only 25% women.

In fairness, master in management programs, which are far more commonplace in Europe, tend to have higher percentages of women than MBAs. And another important caveat is that the upward trend for women at U.S. schools has not translated to equality of representation in U.S. boardrooms: As of fall 2021, only 6% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies were women, according to a Forté analysis, and the nonprofit’s research shows that major hurdles in pay and other areas persist.

‘WE ARE MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION’

European B-schools have not been idle. In February, Ilian Mihov, dean of INSEAD, told Poets&Quants in an exclusive interview that bringing more women into the school’s MBA and other programs remains a priority. He pointed out that in September 2021, INSEAD became the first B-school to join the UN’s HeforShe Alliance, which promotes gender equality through commitments to action by male leaders. INSEAD — which saw its share of women in the MBA grow from 33% in 2018 to 37% in 2021, has committed to a gender-balanced, multi-national board by 2023; to reach a minimum of 40% female participants in the MBA program by the 2024-2025 academic year, while maintaining a minimum of 65 nationalities in each cohort; and to hire 50% women faculty across the next three years.

“We are trying to balance nationality diversity, gender diversity, and so on,” said Mihov, adding that INSEAD recently created an Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. “One of our big problems is that we insist on still having a lot of Europeans in the classroom. I think they’re one-third. But then the problem is that in Europe, there are very few female applicants. In Germany we have about 15% to 20% female applications. Spain, Italy is the same. China has 60% women in the classroom. The U.S. is about 40% to 45%, so it’s like the U.S. schools here.

“It is not impossible to get to 50%, but then you will have a very different composition of the class. We are moving in the right direction. I’m pretty sure that by 2024 we’ll be 40%.”

DON’T MISS HISTORIC: WHY 2021 WAS THE BEST YEAR EVER FOR WOMEN’S MBA ENROLLMENT and POETS&QUANTS’ INTERVIEW WITH ILIAN MIHOV, DEAN OF INSEAD

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