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Millennials (those born from 1982 to 2003) began graduating from college and entering our workforce in 2004 and will continue to make up the bulk of college graduates until about 2023. Women make up the majority of college students, yet they’re the minority in many programs: entrepreneurship; science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) fields; and some areas of business. And beyond college, women are under-represented in senior leadership of organizations and make only 79 percent of the wages of men, according to the American Association of University Women.
But research shows that women-led Fortune 1000 companies perform more than two times better than the S&P 500 and have greater societal impact. What’s the answer to this problem? How do we get more women in leadership roles and maximize their potential? By creating a climate for women in business.
As an entrepreneurship educator, I’ve spent several years working with undergraduate business students. I love the drive and energy I see in these young adults and can’t wait to see the world in their hands. However, I continue to see a disproportionate number of men in these programs, a sentiment that’s echoed by colleagues from around the country. Midway through my Ph.D program, I interviewed a female student who said, “My entrepreneurship program is the first place I’ve ever felt like I belonged.” I left that meeting inspired — I knew I wanted to focus on women entrepreneurship students.
I’m near the end of my program now, and I’ve had the opportunity to study the role of gender in higher education for my dissertation, for which I conducted a qualitative case study of an entrepreneurship program through the lens of Joan Acker’s theory of gendered organizations (that organizational structures are often built around men at the expense of women).
For this case study, I traveled to a four-year institution and conducted a focus group and individual interviews with 10 undergraduate women students ranging in age from 19 to 28, interviews with faculty and staff members, class observations, and an analysis of documents and artifacts. The women who participated in the study were in years two to five of their schooling, pursuing degrees ranging from management to manufacturing, and involved in the entrepreneurship program. (I’ve changed their names here to protect their anonymity.)
Through my research, I’ve come to some enlightening conclusions about how we create a climate of women in business in order to close this gap and provide an opportunity for organizations to thrive under women’s leadership.
According to my research, many women in business feel they have to prove themselves, feel they’re treated differently than men, and feel isolated. These women are often in a male-dominated environment, making it difficult to have a sense of belonging or find role models who look like them. On top of that, they feel the need to compensate for being a woman: to work harder, dress nicer, and find the right balance of everything. This constant concern about doing things “just right,” and the constant balancing act it creates, distracts women from focusing on things they should be focused on, like their work. One participant, Elizabeth, verbalized this by saying, “I just feel like females have more responsibility being in the business world, because I feel like I have to prove something — that I can hang with the boys.”
Many of the subjects felt they have to work harder to fit in because their ideas are often subtly devalued by their male peers. They reported that their male co-workers dominate conversation in team meetings, and women are left out of conversations on group projects. As another participant, Nicole, said, “When they talk to each other about the project, they’ll often talk amongst themselves, and then I’ll be sitting over here and I’ll try to put my input in, and it’s kinda like, ‘Hello?’”
Understanding the struggles women in business face makes one wonder about the women who succeed despite these challenges — what do they have in common? These women work hard and take on a great deal of responsibility. The students I talked to are the kinds of people who have taken on leadership roles their entire lives; many of them study, work multiple jobs, take heavy course loads, lead campus organizations, and even care for family members. In group projects, these women take on the details and logistics, do the bulk of the work, and see that the project is completed (many of the participants described this as their role). Their professors said that these students come to class more prepared and earned better grades than their male classmates.
The participants’ success seems to be advanced by relationships. Relationships are key to their experiences, including those with peers, mentors and role models, and family members. Women are often encouraged to become involved by their peers or by a faculty member, and once in the program, they thrive from a supportive environment where women encourage one another and support one another’s endeavors, even when they’re opposed in the same competition.
One participant, Georgia, said: “We’re all really close. We’re all extremely supportive of each other. If somebody gets a win or if somebody makes a stride toward something, we are all just really excited for each other. And we express that and we show it. That’s a really nice culture to be a part of.”
The women also persist because of the encouragement and mentoring of faculty and staff members. Emily, talking about the impact of a professor, said: “It just showed me that I really need to continue on. So I’ve been slowly working at it since then. Yeah, I have a lot of ideas now. It’s like this litany of ideas of what I should be doing with it. Before it was like nothing — now it’s a litany.” These relationships create a sense of belonging and camaraderie and give students an increased belief in their ability to be succeed.
So what do we do with this knowledge? We use it to create a nurturing environment that attracts and retains millennial women into the workforce. I have a few suggestions.
First, highlight women. Feature women who are doing great things and who are serving in leadership roles. This could be in small ways, such as acknowledging their great work in front of the team during a staff meeting, nominating them for an award, or asking them to take on leadership of a project. Women seeing other women’s progress makes the work less intimidating. And, by acknowledging their great work, you’re also creating a culture that encourages workers to be supportive of one another. One person’s success is everyone’s success.
Traditional gendered organizations explicitly or implicitly demonstrate what roles are “appropriate” for women and men. Change it up. Put a man in charge of office birthdays. Ask a woman to head up the office basketball tournament. When you assemble teams, be sure they are gender diverse and assign roles so that the women don’t always take on the “housekeeping” tasks and leave men to the strategy. Hold each team member accountable for their contribution to the project. Create a system in which everyone speaks at a staff meeting.
And, as I said before, promote relationships. Create ways for employees to get to know one another at work. Using work time for play time will pay off as you build a sense of community, which leads to more productivity and teamwork. Specifically give women an opportunity for mentoring by pairing an up-and-coming leader with two people already in leadership roles: one man and one woman.
That brings me to my last point: incentivize the use of resources. Make it clear that the resources you have available are for everyone, not just the men and not just leaders. Encourage question-asking and knowledge-seeking. Some women don’t even see their own potential, so encourage them to take the next step: apply for funding, enter a contest, apply for a training program, or nominate them for an award. Be an advocate for success, be approachable to help, and serve as a resource.
Is it possible these tactics may be helpful for men too? Absolutely. But for those areas where women are underrepresented, it’s important to create a climate for women to thrive — because that helps your company thrive too.
Sara L. Cochran is the entrepreneurial programs manager at the UM System; a Ph.D Candidate studying higher education at MU, and the owner of Pomegranate Enterprises LLC.