Rebuilding Business Culture Around Inclusion

Oregon State has seen an increase in women enrolling in the part-time MBA, both online and in Portland.

Brand Story- Oregon State celebrates the first time its incoming MBA class is more than 50% women.

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While Oregon State would happily tell you how much it values inclusion, it would rather show you. The university’s newest milestone in gender equality arrives with its next batch of MBA students. For the first time since its inception, the incoming class of MBA students is 50% women.

That is a major milestone when you consider that 36.7%* (2016) of US MBA students and just 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women (in stark contrast to a workforce that is 50% women).

Such distinct progress in the face of systemic inequity relies on efforts, big and small, from all parties. In 2017, OSU recognized that faculty, students and staff were contributing to the change. To strengthen their combined efforts, it introduced the Center for the Advancement of Women in Leadership.

A coordinating force, the center informs the community – business leaders, educators, students and more – on the challenges women face, prepares them with tools to create change and provides professional development opportunities designed with women’s needs in mind.

“Every College of Business student takes a course on diversity and inclusion,” explained Audrey Iffert-Saleem, Director, Center for the Advancement of Women in Leadership. “In that class, students learn about gender and bias in the workplace.”

Audreys headshotAudrey Iffert-Saleem, Director, Center for the Advancement of Women in Leadership.

The female experience again takes center stage, literally, at The Susan J. McGregor Memorial Lecture on Women’s Leadership, annually attended by all first-year students. A woman in a senior leadership position presents her professional experiences, challenges and successes. This year, it will also include a workshop on sexual harassment in the workplace.

“Educating our community is important because gender inequity is not just a women’s problem. It’s a women’s and men’s problem, and we need to be engaging both women and men in the conversation so we can move toward solutions,” she said. “Professional development for women is not enough to solve this problem.”

Progress becomes possible as business owners, venture capitalists, educators, students and the wider community begin to recognize and address inequality in their own immediate environments. Most subtle and pervasive is implicit bias — the reason that women are disproportionately asked to get office supplies, take notes in meetings and grab coffee.**

Teaching students about these realities helps them identify biases later on as they step into their roles as next-generation business leaders.

When they do, they have the power to build a new business culture and broader society around inclusion. In this potential future landscape, the gender pay gap is but a memory; men and women are viewed as equally competent family caregivers; and young girls are instilled with courage, not doubt, when they pursue historically male-dominated fields.

Oregon State’s part-time MBA program and the JD Power Fellowship tackle some of the barriers that women face when pursuing professional development, partially contributing to the uptick in enrollment. The hybrid and online programs are designed to be flexible to meet the needs of working professionals who want to advance their education while maintaining career and personal obligations. The fellowship awards female MBA students who are working to achieve a leadership role within a company with scholarships toward tuition and professional development.

“I think the increase in women’s enrollments is also because we’re taking systemic action and being diligent to communicate our stance on the need to advance women in leadership,” said Mitzi Montoya, Dean of OSU’s College of Business. “We care about representation among volunteers, advisory board members, guest speakers and faculty.”

Robin ChaseRobin Chase, cofounder and former CEO of Zipcar, author and executive chairman of Veniam, shares her leadership story with OSU students.

One misconception is that representation means choosing unqualified women over qualified men — whether for enrollment spots or faculty positions. In reality, increased enrollment boils down to being deliberate in the recruitment and retention of women. For event presenters, professors, board members and other leaders, Oregon State casts a wider net to find individuals who will be great contributors, but who also more accurately represent student demographics.

“Recruiting is very intentional here. Normally, people turn to their immediate network and ask friends or colleagues to apply for these roles, but research shows that our networks tend to look like ourselves demographically. So, you have to be purposeful when you want to recruit new folks who are demographically different from yourself,” Iffert-Saleem explained.

Inclusion hinges on all perspectives. When the center tackles inclusion it also speaks about the interconnected nature of gender, race, class, sexuality and more.

Her team realizes that the spectrum of inequality is inherently connected: When a man speaks loudly and passionately, people tend to respect him and listen. When a woman speaks loudly and passionately, she is often perceived as irrational. When the woman speaking loudly and passionately is black, these negative stereotypes may be amplified and she is often considered ill-tempered or even hostile. And nobody wins in any of these scenarios.
“We can’t fulfill our full economic potential with what we’re doing now. We have to fully engage all men and all women, and centers like this address those problems,” Iffert-Saleem added.

mba student1Advancing Women in Leadership is a Portland professional development series that brings the community together to discuss challenges and strategies.

Reaching for gender equity means rebuilding the culture around business and discussing tough questions: Does having masculine traits make you a stronger businessperson, or do we undervalue femininity? And what about these traits makes them masculine or feminine to begin with?

Change is happening. The 50-50 gender representation in this year’s MBA class proves that, as does corporate interest in aligning with the cause. The college’s quarterly Portland professional development series, “Advancing Women in Leadership” draws more than 100 attendees from the business community, which has led to an expansion of the event in Corvallis.

“We have companies sign up to sponsor our events six to nine months in advance. It’s just more validation that the business community wants this as well,” she concluded.

The Center for the Advancement of Women in Leadership, in partnership with the wider Oregon State community, will continue pushing for dialogue and development until that welcome day when it has worked its way out of a job.

What you can do today to help promote inclusion
• Have an honest conversation with a woman about her experience in the workplace
• Step up to sponsor women
• Join a women’s resource group at your company or organization and seek to ensure the group is inclusive
• Educate yourself and your leadership team
• Be a voice on these topics within your organization
• Speak up for women who are being interrupted or disrespected
• Embrace workplace flexibility and demonstrate it for your employees
• Support development opportunities for women
• Develop new HR practices that address the gender pay gap
• Believe and support women who report sexual harassment
• Urge qualified women you know to apply for positions and take risks
• Engage men in the conversation

To learn more about the center, visit: [email protected]
** (references book: What Works for Women at Work)

Brand stories are paid content articles that allow Oregon Business advertisers to share news about their organizations and engage with readers on business and public policy issues.  The stories are produced in house by the Oregon Business marketing department. For more information, contact associate publisher Courtney Kutzman.