Business school may still be a man's world, but institutions are looking to shake things up by placing female talent at the helm.
Eager to achieve—or at least approach—gender parity in their administrative ranks, many schools are "acting affirmatively" by picking women over similarly qualified men to fill deanship slots, says Lucy Apthorp Leske, a partner at search firm Witt/Kieffer. By doing so, schools hope to introduce more diverse opinions into their high-level decision-making. But whether these changes will make a difference long-term remains to be seen.
The dearth of women in deanships isn't unlike the current picture of women in chief executive roles—though, to be sure, it isn't quite as bleak.
Women constituted 18% of U.S. business-school deans in the 2011-2012 academic year, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an industry group. Meanwhile, women hold just 20 CEO spots at Fortune 500 companies, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that supports women in business.
Lower down the ladder, women held nearly one-third of associate dean positions in the 2011-2012 academic year, compared with 20% a decade earlier. About one-fourth of deans used that position, overseeing curriculum or academic programs, as a launch pad to the top spot, according to a recent AACSB survey.
Schools are courting those up-and-comers aggressively. Alison Davis-Blake, dean of University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, began receiving inquiries from search firms while a senior associate dean at University of Texas, Austin's McCombs School of Business. She says she was contacted "to excess."
Some suggest that schools' eagerness to even out the ranks among deans is little more than a numbers play, since many women deans say that their gender has little impact on the way they actually lead their business schools on a day-to-day basis.
"In terms of strategic positioning and core tactical actions, I don't think those are really any different because of gender," says Ms. Davis-Blake. While some women faculty and administrators may be drawn to a particular school because there are other women at the top, she says it is likely just "on the margins."
Nevertheless, any top-tier dean—man or woman—holds sway in powerful business and policy circles. They often serve as directors of major companies, set the agenda for what tomorrow's corporate titans might learn and, in the wake of the financial crisis, are called upon to defend the very existence and value of their institutions.
Plus, having women in leadership positions can make a mark on a school's student body, a crucial asset as institutions look to close the gender gap among that population as well. (About one-third of M.B.A. students are women, according to estimates from Forté Foundation, a group that seeks to create gender parity in corporate leadership.)
The presence of women deans, just like the presence of women executives in the corporate world, "helps [students] to see the kind of things they can do and where they can go," says Linda Livingstone, dean of Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management.
The intense demand for female deans has allowed prospects to be picky, wary of being added to shortlists just to serve as token representatives, says Kenneth Kring, co-managing director of the global education practice at Korn/Ferry International. (Korn/Ferry in recent years has helped place women deans at Ross, Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and University of Missouri's Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business.)
Some women turn down the position, fearing a blow to their work-life balance, since academic deanships can be just as demanding as a chief-executive role. Ms. Livingstone, who has a 16-year-old daughter, says the deanship put a "burden on [her] family as a whole" but she and her husband were "willing to align [their] lives to work that way."
Meanwhile, a handful of business schools, including those at Boston University and Wake Forest University, have turned to the corporate world—where women are even more of a rarity—to fill recent deanship openings. Both schools picked men.
Though Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business opted for a woman when it nabbed Johnson & Johnson executive Christine A. Poon for its dean in 2009, a broader shift toward tapping business executives in general could quash advancement opportunities for academic women already waiting in the wings. It may even hurt gender parity in academic leadership, since the pool of corporate candidates skews more heavily male.
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