August 21, 2017
Focus: Continuing and Graduate Education for Professionals and Executives

CT biz schools aim to build women C-suite pipeline

PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
After completing her MBA at UConn, Nancy Lennert received a promotion at LEGO to her current role of project manager of shopper marketing agency. Connecticut business schools are actively trying to recruit more female MBA students like Lennert.
Annette Rogers, MBA program director and clinical instructor of management, University of Hartford
Judy Gedge, business professor, Quinnipiac University

When Nancy Lennert decided to transition her career from animation to marketing, one of her first steps was to enroll in UConn's part-time MBA program.

"I wanted a more solid foundation of business knowledge, including finance and accounting," Lennert said.

Her investment has already paid dividends. Within a year of earning her degree in 2015, Lennert was promoted to her current role as project manager of shopper marketing agency at LEGO. She credits her professional growth — and her ability to better align her project activities with LEGO's bottom line growth — in large part, to her MBA experience.

While an MBA can be a sound investment for some — whether aspiring to the corporate executive suite or entering the family business — the rate of women entering MBA programs nationally is lagging behind that of their male counterparts. In fact, a recent report by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) found that only 37 percent of full-time, two-year MBA applicants nationwide are female. Among women offered admission, 38 percent of female applicants cited financial concerns as the reason they didn't enroll, nearly twice the decline rate of men who cited cost as a factor (20 percent).

It's a challenge that business schools in Connecticut have been chipping away at over the past 10 to 15 years — and with some positive results.

Among part-time MBA students, the numbers are a bit rosier. At the University of Hartford's Barney School of Business, for instance, 51 percent of the school's 350 graduate business students are female, according to Annette Rogers, UHart's MBA program director and clinical instructor of management.

In part, Rogers said, the school's success in recruiting all business students is UHart's areas of concentration within its MBA program.

"Most people enter our program to advance their career," Rogers said, "and we allow students to develop specialized knowledge in specific fields such as data-analytics or supply-chain management."

And while technical competence is a core component of UHart's MBA program, Rogers contends that other amenities — like the campus' Women's Business Center or Entrepreneurial Center — help play a role in attracting female applicants and students. Both centers not only provide access to academic resources, but also to a network of alumni and business leaders. "We want our students to develop competence, confidence and connectedness," Rogers said.

For women in particular, said Judy Gedge, a business professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, it's also about exposing students — both undergraduate and graduate level — to personal tales of struggle and perseverance from today's leaders. She points to the school's Center for Women and Business, which hosts frequent speakers and panelists from the state's largest employers, including United Technologies Corp., Travelers and Aetna.

"I think it's inspiring when students hear from leaders about the challenges and obstacles they have overcome," Gedge said. "I think sometimes our students think they're the only ones who struggle or question themselves."

Lucy Gilson, academic director of the Geno Auriemma Leadership Conference at UConn, agrees. "I think it's important to highlight women in leadership roles," Gilson said. "It can give the next generation something to aspire to."

And while the executive levels of corporate America have long been dominated by male leaders, the growth of women in the C-suite is slowly climbing. In fact, the number of women taking over the CEO role increased for the third consecutive year in 2016 to 18.5 percent up from 15 percent in 2015, according to global consultancy firm Challenger, Gray, & Christmas. And research shows that gender diversity in the C-suite also boosts profitability: A Peterson Institute Study found that companies with at least 30 percent of their leadership team made up of women are associated with a 1 percentage point increase in net margin.

Trends like that make Gilson optimistic about the growth trajectory for women in business. Fifteen years ago, there might have been a recognition of the lack of gender diversity in the C-suite, Gilson contends, but today people are more focused on action steps to address it.

Business schools have an important role to play beyond simply solving the gender gap in corporate America. Many students today want to earn their MBA to become an entrepreneur, enter a family business or run a nonprofit, Gilson said. Mentors are a critical resource for business people, according to Gilson. From women's employee resource groups to organizations like the National Association of Women MBAs, there are myriad groups that business schools are leveraging to help students and alumni.

For Gilson, watching alumni — like LEGO's Lennert — give back has been the most rewarding part of her business school career. "To see how much they want to help the next generation of business leaders," Gilson said, "is very inspiring."

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