Editorial: Why Women Want

I’ve never really understood how a gender that makes up more than half the population (51% in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau) constitutes a minority, but when it comes to women in business, the minority classification certainly holds true. In fact, the statistics are pretty grim. While women make up 41% of full-time employees, only 15.7% of corporate officer positions are held by women, and a mere eight of the Fortune 500 Companies have a woman CEO, for a whopping total of 1.6%.

The evidence also suggests that this trend develops far below C-level. At top business schools, for instance, women consistently make up between 25% – 35% of all students, despite the fact that women and men are earning undergraduate degrees in roughly equal numbers.

What gives? And what are we doing about it?
The two most oft cited reasons why women fall behind in the corporate world are a lack of networks and a weak leadership image. Presumably, the women at HBS and other top business schools should be aware of these challenges and should be doing everything in their power to overcome them.

But we’re not.

A few weeks ago, I attended the sold-out Venture Capital and Private Equity Conference, hosted for its 10th year at HBS. The conference was impressive – from the two distinguished keynote speakers to a host of engaging and accomplished panelists. Yet I left the conference feeling a bit unsettled (and not just because every practitioner I spoke with advised that the best way to secure a VC or PE internship was to have two years of VC or PE experience). Rather, I couldn’t help but wonder – where were all the women?

If I were to guess, I would venture that of the more than 600 conference participants, only 5%, maybe 10%, were female. While I can rationalize that fewer women are interested in finance, and while I can believe that women have opted-out of 80+ hour work weeks, I still can’t understand why more women didn’t attend.

We’ve learned that it often takes more than a great product to build a successful company – it also takes capital, access to distribution channels, and the right partners, all of which are dependent on having the right networks. Yet women are clearly behind. In fact, over the last five years, companies led by women received less than 5% of all venture capital invested, despite the fact that women-owned enterprises currently make up over 30% of all U.S. firms. Of the many amazing women at HBS, well over half have contemplated or plan to start their own businesses after graduation. So where were these future female entrepreneurs and why weren’t they building their networks?

In contrast, more than 800 women gathered a few weeks beforehand for the 13th annual Dynamic Women in Business Conference. Similarly, the WSA, 85 Broads, and other women’s networking groups consistently draw large audiences to their events. Don’t get me wrong – these events are great – they provide a much needed forum for the exchange of women’s perspectives, ideas and inspirations. I myself left the launch of The Network at Harvard ready to scale Mt. Everest, or do something like, and I have found that most of my strongest relationships at HBS are with other women.

But let’s face it, in many facets of business, it’s still very much a man’s world, and for women to succeed, we have to build strong networks with both genders. Rather than focusing on networking with other women, we must equally spend time networking with men. Or better yet, we should open our networks to both sexes. Couldn’t discussions of work/life balance or family issues, benefit from the perspective of men?

Leadership image is a tougher issue to analyze, based as it is on intangible characteristics such as confidence and charisma. However, I would argue that there is no better place to develop leadership skills than at the Harvard Business School. Every day, we have the chance to voice our opinions before 90 colleagues who are willing and able to refine our logic, to sharpen our arguments, and to help us learn. We can also easily become the Vice President of just about any organization on campus. But the question remains: are women taking advantage of these opportunities?

I will leave that question for each of us to ponder, but I will also say this. Right now, the only money on the table is our own. If we don’t raise our hands high and straight, take risks, and dig deep, the loss will be ours alone. Sure, your comment might be immediately and completely contradicted by the case protagonist. You might even unconsciously interject a few lines of Billy Idol into the discussion, not realizing that you had spoken out loud. But better to bungle the analysis or to say something stupid now than when a multi-million dollar deal is at stake or when your own company is on the line.

Once we confront the reasons why women are still a minority in business, and once we do everything in our power to overcome these obstacles, we can better focus our attention on what we want. And the choice will be ours to make.

Anne Ristau