Business View: 40 years of progress for women - yet more needs to be done

By Dean Cathy Minehan, Featured in the Boston Business Journal

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Simmons College School of Management -- the first MBA program in the world focused on creating women business leaders. In celebration, one of the founding deans, Anne Jardim, spoke at the Simmons College commencement May 10. One might think that an MBA focused on women is an idea whose time has come and gone. But as we continue to see in all sectors of our economy and society, we have a lot of work to do.

In her commencement address, Jardim observed that 40 years ago women felt they couldn't take the risk to become business leaders and weren't sure if they could even supervise men. Furthermore, she noted that women led and organized themselves differently. This intrinsic difference continues to impact women today.

While women have certainly made progress, we continue to see few well-qualified women rise to the top of the corporate rung. This is not as a matter of fairness, but a matter of economic necessity.

Businesses are hiring great women candidates; they are being trained to succeed at the highest levels, but they don't. As a result, businesses -- and our nation -- are suffering. We aren't using our collective brainpower to its greatest advantage.

Today, while business schools everywhere accept women, and, in fact, fiercely compete for the best candidates, little progress has been made at the top of the corporate ladder, either in for-profit or not-for-profit entities. Women make up a tiny fraction of CEOs and less than 15 percent of board members at major companies. Great women MBAs fill the incoming ranks of business and make their ways to middle management but there, the progress stops. What's happening out there in the real world after the academic preparation of the MBA that women have so clearly mastered?

Is the problem that women don't "Lean in," as Sheryl Sandberg puts it, or is the fault with the subtle biases that they face in the business world, especially as they navigate their ways to the top? We need to approach this issue in its broadest terms. We need to educate women to be highly skilled in the business basics, while also addressing the organizational challenges they face.

As we celebrate the founding of the Simmons College School of Management and founding deans Jardim and the late Margaret Hennig, we continue to ponder some of the questions they asked 40 years ago. We have seen many women tackle tough problems and succeed. We hope to see more of them in the next 40 years.