The Ross School of Business has a reputation.

Illustration by Alicia Kovalcheck
Business school senior Tatiana Melamed, left, said finding a community with the Michigan Business Women organization helped her find inclusion in the Business School. Associate Finance Prof. Amy Dittmar echoed that MBW is one step forward for women in business, but more progress still needs to be made.

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Secluded inside its impressive, ultra-modern building on Tappan Avenue, it’s the place on campus that typically comes to mind when students hear the word “advantage.” The school is frequently ranked among the top 10 bachelor’s of business administration and master’s of business administration programs in the country, churning out graduates that go on to find work in many of the world’s most recognizable firms.

Bloomberg reported that the average starting salaries for fresh BBAs was a cool $62,727 and upwards of $110,000 for MBA students. But even more impressive? Close to 90.5 percent of the undergraduates the school produces receive a job offer immediately after earning their degrees — an unprecedented level of security that hasn’t shaken in the face of a wavering economy.

From a purely results-oriented standpoint, the Business School is a well-recognized, established school. But the notion of “advantage” doesn’t just imply success. It’s hard to overlook the fact that the large majority of the students enrolled at the Business School are white males, and have been since the school’s inception in 1924.

Though there’s no doubt that progress has been made, the fact of the matter is that currently only 35 percent of the 468 students in the sophomore BBA class are female. That number falls when considering the rest of the Business School, where a little more than 32 percent of the 1,302 undergraduate students are women, according to a Fall 2013 enrollment report from the Office of the Registrar.

But does an inequality in numbers imply discrimination?

A recent New York Times case study took an in-depth look at how sexual discrimination plays a role in the learning and teaching environment women find themselves in at the Harvard Business School. In addition to focusing on sexism, the article turns the lens on aggressive methods schools are taking to diminish it, such as workshops to teach women how to raise their hands to increase participation and recording each lecture to see how female professors could improve teaching styles.

Business junior Sumana Palle, an executive board member for What the F magazine and self-identifying “Bitch of the B-School,” was quick to point out that a similar level of sexism does not exist at Ross, but a clear dichotomy in the type of students who attend the school creates tension.

Though many of the people she works with are intelligent students, the source of the problem is the few Business School students that come in with the predetermined idea that equality isn’t assumed.

“Most of the students at Ross are inspiring — they’re some of the smartest people on campus,” she said. “But there’s a vocal minority who are just awful people — douches who come from very privileged families and want to make sure everyone knows.”

Palle said this sense of entitlement is sorely felt in group projects, class discussions or, for that matter, any personal interactions.

At certain instances in her time at the Business School, Palle describes how she often felt slighted and forced to finish many of the menial tasks in classroom projects, such as taking notes or writing summaries of group meetings. It is a form of discrimination that, according to Palle, stems from a clear divide in numbers and the perception of roles, which require women to fight in order to be heard.

The notion of an inclusive community depends on the open-mindedness of the people involved, independent of skin color or gender. But, it’s hard to ignore the statistics.

According to the registrar, only 18 of the students currently registered as undergraduates at Ross are Black while 859 are white. The numbers get worse when looking at Black women. Of the entire Ross student body of 1,312, eight are Black women. Even if it’s indirect, the numbers influence the school’s culture.

In many interview workshops that precede recruiting seasons, Palle recalls how the sessions geared toward women pay special attention to what type of makeup to wear and how to best go about “prettying up.” Though Palle agrees these methods could be a way for women to prepare for the realities of the business world, she notes a prevalent level of condescension.

“There is always this condescending tone, and it’s hard being a brown female, because that affects the way people look at things,” Palle said. “Sometimes it gets to the point where I just think to myself, ‘Why am I even in this school?’ ”

One of the select students preadmitted to the Business School before her freshman year, Palle described the contrast in the experiences between her first year at the University and her second. Many of the on-campus organizations she joined as a freshman were progressive groups where the idea of “contributing what you can” took precedence. The change she saw as a student at Ross was striking.

“The difference was bizarre,” Palle said. “When you’d walk into class, all you would see are white male faces. That just hits you, and automatically, you become self-conscious and think ‘Why am I here? What could I say, what should I say? Will these people hate me if I say these things?’ ”

An inclusive community

The most interesting aspect of the experiences Palle describes is how they diverge from those of another female student on campus. Business senior Tatiana Melamed, co-president of the BBA population of Michigan Business Women — an on-campus organization that provides Business School students with networking and educational opportunities — affirmed that some individuals at the Business School are prejudiced, but never to the point that she has felt targeted or discriminated against.

Melamed said her initial interactions with the older members of MBW helped her understand the relevance of the community she could foster should she choose to stick with the Michigan Business Women. As a woman working with other women, Melamed didn’t feel excluded.

The inclusion she gained in MBW, she said, carried over into the rest of the classes and projects she undertook as an undergraduate.

“I guess I never even viewed myself as different from other students, even going from my time as a freshman in LSA to a sophomore at Ross,” Melamed said. “And even if I’ve felt different for being a girl, it has been in a positive light, with other women — whether it’s professors who took me under their wing or other classmates — looking out for me.”

Like Palle, she referenced her time working in group projects with teams heavily dominated in number by men. The difference in takeaways is stark.

“I’ve never felt like my opinion has been marginalized, which could be because I am a very assertive person,” Melamed said. “And I think a lot of my friends are in the same boat.”

The key to success, Melamed clarified, is getting women to take part in an inclusive community as early as possible, so they have a chance to find a support system they can lean on should difficulty arise.

This support system, which Melamed found in the form of MBW, establishes a space for everyone involved to voice common concerns. Even if those concerns aren’t directly related to sexism, the ability to confide in someone going through the same experience is vital.

Palle pointed out how most of the women she has met in the Business School have extremely varied ideas on what is sexism. Many of her friends, she noted, don’t even realize when they’re being discriminated against. It’s all a matter of perspective.

“I think the saddest part is that so many women don’t even know when someone is being sexist,” Palle said. “We view it differently.”

Both Palle and Melamed seemed to mirror one answer: Ultimately, a problem lies in the numbers.

“A lot of people bring attention to how we don’t participate in class,” Melamed said. “When you consider the fact that only 30 percent of the students are female, it’s easy to see why you’d have more responses from men than women.”

An inequality in numbers

Historically, females have always been underrepresented in higher stratums of the business world, which remains consistent despite a larger influx of women in the workforce over the past few decades. Even though institutions like the Business School are starting to produce more female graduates than in the past, the same graduates have a difficult time climbing the corporate ladder.

According to recent reports by McKinsey & Company, a major management consulting firm, “Corporate America has a ‘leaky’ talent pipeline; at each transition up the management ranks, more women are left behind.”

Even though only about half of new hires are men, 63 percent of male new hires are promoted to low-level managerial positions with females in those positions dropping to 37 percent. Moving a few steps further, 74 percent of individuals promoted to vice president or senior executive positions are male and just 14 percent of professionals on most executive committees are female.

What is intriguing is the hyper-focused efforts of many companies to increase diversity on their executive boards. A yearly report by McKinsey called “Women Matter” examines the efforts of corporations across the world to create more inclusive work environments. In 2012, researchers found that of the 235 firms examined, 63 percent had more than 20 programs in place as part of their gender diversity initiatives. Though there have been some marked improvements, the results are less than optimistic.

“In only 8 percent of the biggest companies in the survey did women account for more than a quarter of the top jobs,” the study states.

So what went wrong?

The report draws two large critiques of the companies put under the lens: Not enough sought government aid to facilitate diversification, and, more importantly, many of the programs they instituted were prematurely applied — a large push was made to promote women into mid-level management positions, but because some promoted women were underqualified, profits dropped, making it highly unlikely for the women given promotions to rise further. Women were simply hired to meet quotas within time and were not given the proper recruiting consideration an employee would otherwise deserve.

The results are eerily mirrored in a study by Associate Finance Prof. Amy Dittmar, who is also an asssociate dean for a Specialty Master’s Program. In the study, Dittmar and Prof. Kenneth Ahern examined the impacts of a law requiring public-limited Norwegian companies to have at least 40 percent representation of women on their boards.

The researchers discovered that the stock price of most firms noticeably dropped as a result of the new policy, but they asserted the drop had nothing to do with the gender of the new board members.

Rather, the 40-percent constraint imposed on the firms led them to hire underqualified women to meet compliance, causing a drop in performance and indirectly giving life to the false perception that women do not belong on boards.

“When firms were free to choose directors before the rule, they tended to choose women that were similar to men directors,” Dittmar and Ahern said in a press release for the report. “This is consistent with the idea that the large demand and small supply for women directors after the adoption of the 40-percent quota forced firms to choose directors that they would not have chosen otherwise.”

Life after business school might not be intrinsically connected to gender imbalances inside the Business School, but it’s a thought-provoking comparison: If there’s one thing uniting the firms examined in the reports mentioned above, it’s that most of them acknowledged that an inequality in number exists.

Solving a problem

According to Dittmar, the first step to solving the numbers issue is reevaluating current progress. Dittmar said it is important to recognize the efforts of organizations like MBW, but know there is more progress to be made.

“I think the most important thing is to create an environment that students want to be a part of,” Dittmar said. “We are proud of the culture here, but there’s obviously work to be done.”

After the recent article in The New York Times about Harvard Business School, MBW hosted a panel for any Business School student to voice concerns if they had seen a similar level of sexism in their own classes.

“When a story like that comes out, it ripples out,” said Dittmar. “It was really important that we confirm the same things weren’t going on at Ross.”

Though most responses supported the claim that sexism wasn’t as visible at Ross, many of the students in attendance felt that the existence of the problem, no matter where that problem may be, means it’s time to have an open dialogue, giving students who faced discrimination a chance to speak for themselves.

Dittmar explained that after the initial panel, the professors left the room and let students break off into groups to discuss possible steps toward a solution. By and large, students felt that the school had to take a more involved approach in spreading awareness of the issue, reaching out to the entire Business School community to instill the importance of diversity, and getting a more varied group of possible applicants interested in the school.

“We’re definitely mindful of the divide in the population,” Tamra Talmadge-Anderson, a public relations director at the Business School, said. “But it’s important to see how willing we are to open doors to people at the Business School.”

For example, Ross is a founding member of the Forté Foundation, an organization that actively works to create scholarship opportunities for women looking to enroll in business schools. Since its formation, the foundation has seen an overall 22-percent rise in MBA enrollment at the institutions that sponsor it.

Good old boys club

Though signs of progress are citable, some concentrations of business, namely finance, are slow to show signs of change. Emily Pare, co-president of the graduate student portion of MBW, referenced a recent corporate valuation class she took in Detroit through the Business School, where there were approximately three or four women out of more than 30 total students.

“It’s not one of those fields women typically go into,” Pare said. “Even corporate finance and investment banking, definitely, is an industry that is male-dominated. I think there were two women total last year that were recruiting for investment banking.”

She said that it’s one of those few pockets in the industry that has avoided change for an extremely long time.

She paused for a moment when asked why she thought that was the case.

“I guess it requires a thick skin,” she finally said, uncertain. “I don’t think it’s that women are uninterested in it. I think the culture in place there doesn’t fit them very well. From the outside, it’s hard to tell specifically what that culture is, but you’re definitely going to have those nights where all the guys go out, which kind of creates the ‘good-old-boys club’ idea and ostracizes women.”

Overwhelmingly, the exclusivity spawns a lack of understanding in both directions: Women often don’t know how to approach the work environment at large investment banks and the men there don’t know how to make an inclusive environment.

According to Pare, the answer is creating a reliable mentorship program and having women already in the field or who have already worked in the field willing to help out others that want to join.

The easiest place to find those mentors should be the faculty at the Business School, but it is heavily skewed in favor of men in the finance subdivision. Of the 27 professors, associate professors and visiting scholars listed in the department’s staff page, two are female.

Despite the Business School boasting that 50 percent of its faculty leaders are women, the inequality at lower levels needs to be changed.

According to a recent study conducted by Prof. James Westphal, as more women and minorities find a place on executive committees, few are able to attain the elite “inner circle status” that comes from serving on multiple boards. The reason: the lack of mentoring they receive from white male executives already on the payroll.

It’s not fair to say that male faculty members are unable to guide female students. But as Melamed stated, it has to be acknowledged that students are more likely to confide in people who have gone through similar problems. The varying perceptions female students have of the Business School is a testament to why the issue can’t be approached in one way, or following the course of Norway’s 40-percent rule and prematurely admitting more female students.

“We can’t just blindly throw money at the problem and hope for it to magically disappear,” Pare said. “It’s never that simple.”

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