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Create a level playing field

Reimagining the MBA curriculum can help equip women with the right tools for career growth and success

Reimagining the MBA curriculum can help equip women with the right tools for career growth and success

India faces a strange paradox. On one hand, a greater number of women enroll in higher education each year. On the other, women continue to drop out of the workforce. In the corporate world, management skills are considered important for sustained career growth and success. However, the track record for women, even from the top MBA schools in India, is poor. While many graduate and start on a par with their male classmates, they are less likely to enter the workforce, and more likely to drop out.

Research has shown that the average MBA classroom curriculum is inadequate to prepare women for the world of work. Management schools treat men and women in the same way, assuming that they will emerge from their colleges and face the same environment. Sadly, this isn’t true. The analogy that explains this the best is that of a golf academy that encourages everyone to apply but provides only right-handed clubs to its members. Clearly, the left-handed students graduate with a disadvantage and never perform to their potential. Similarly, women enter workplaces largely designed by and for men, without the skills they need to navigate their unique situation.

Facing biases

Society, homes and workplaces present a very different set of factors to men and women, be it expectations around behaviour, ambition, or traits that determine workplace success. Stereotypes like aggressive versus assertive, supportive vs soft, frivolous vs fun are now well documented, among other biases that women face at the workplace.

To correct this, organisations sponsor women professionals in women-only executive education programmes. The curriculum is surprisingly similar across the globe, focused on strengthening traits that are under-developed because of years of gendered conditioning — confidence, assertiveness, negotiation skills, networking, executive presence, dealing with guilt, difficult conversations, resolving conflict and achieving balance.  

Course correction

The question to ask is: why aren’t we equipping our young women with these competencies right at the beginning so that they navigate their domestic and professional environments with more ease? Why must they hit a wall before we correct for prejudices? 

Another question is that of access. Wherever there are limited seats, women are at a disadvantage. According to the Association of MBAs, only 19% of students who applied for and enrolled in Indian business schools are women — the lowest ratio in the world. Part of it is self-selection: they opt out based on evidence of how women fare in the corporate world. The high-quality MBA space is extremely competitive and women, based on generational experience, decide not to join the ‘rat race’. Unfortunately, this means that they miss out on career growth since managerial skills are highly recommended for the traditional success toolkit. How can we make access to high-quality management education easier for young women? 

Women need role models to show that success is well within their reach. A 2016 analysis of case studies at top business schools globally shows that only 8% have female protagonists, sending a clear signal to students about what leadership looks like. Exposure to female role models can significantly influence women’s ambitions and performance. 

Such exposure can also teach women how to leverage the strengths of values such as collaboration, empathy, lateral thinking, self-aware leadership, and listening, which don’t yet find a place in standard MBA curricula but are becoming increasingly important to lead in a complex and uncertain world. A reimagined MBA can incorporate all of these requirements to prepare women for their professional journey.  

Most importantly, we need MBA programmes that prompt women to think of work as a ‘must-have’ as opposed to a ‘nice-to-have’. While it will take time to create a level playing field, we can accelerate the process by equipping women with the right tools.

The writer is Founder and Dean, The Vedica Scholars Programme for Women.

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