Women in B-School and Percentages: What the Numbers Really Mean


So much of the talk around women focuses on percentages. It seems every week news headlines announce major milestones of women in business schools: when women make up more than 40 percent of an incoming class; or when a school reports a significant increase in applications from females; or when school officials announce plans of targeting 50 percent women by 2020.

Percentages are seen as a proxy for inclusiveness -- the higher the percentage, the more a community will listen to a group’s ideas, provide them with pathways to opportunities, and promote their leadership.

But here’s the shortcoming of percentages: they don’t give you a sense of a school’s climate - i.e., what it actually feels like to be there, and what can be accomplished when you are there.

To draw a parallel, I’m a four-season outdoor runner. Before I head out the door, I don’t look at the temperature, I look at the “Feels like…” number. If it feels colder than the actual temp, I dress differently. Similarly, the number that students should gauge is the “feels like” number. A school’s percentage of women, for example, could be more than 40 percent, but feel more like 20 percent because of classroom dynamics or the small number of women in leadership roles.

If you asked one of our women students what our climate “feels like,” they’d say close to 50/50. Why? Because they feel comfortable engaging actively in the classroom. They hold more than 40 percent of key leadership positions -- including playing key roles as leaders of our investment funds, as presidents of student-led professional organizations, and as peer coaches.

The men of Michigan Ross are also an active voice in the inclusiveness conversation. A group of them launched Ross Manbassadors in collaboration with the Michigan Business Women student club. Their goal is to “educate, engage and empower” all members of the Ross community to be advocates for gender equity. (Visit the Manbassador Facebook page to see what they’re up to).

The climate surrounding women extends beyond the walls of Ross. Prominent female alumni run Women Who Launch, an entrepreneurial organization devoted to helping women achieve their business goals.

There are other facts I could share with you -- such as the many Multidisciplinary Action Projects focused on women’s empowerment (particularly around poverty and healthcare) or the fact that the three of our six Associate Deans are women -- but citing more numbers runs a bit counter to my point about valuing climate.

I read an HBR article this week, “How Women Are Faring at Business Schools Worldwide,” that makes a similar point: “As Harvard has courageously confessed, even when gender ratios improve, cultures don’t automatically become more gender bilingual.”  

I’ll close with stressing that the focus of the conversation surrounding women in business should be on climate rather than a percentage. Climate is difficult to capture. There’s no standard measure.

The best and most authentic way to gauge climate is to engage with the people who are here (have you connected with our students yet?). They’re the ones running outside and know what the temperature actually feels like.

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Soojin Kwon

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