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How Women Can Use Business School to Hone Leadership Skills

Women should join a variety of student groups to expand their network, but can particularly benefit from groups that are for women.

Business school women

Some business schools help students learn how to negotiate or receive feedback – skills that some consider critical for women who want to lead.

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Women and men alike are capable of building and leading a business. But even when women are well-positioned to take a company's reins, they sometimes don't, according to a study published this month in the American Sociological Review.

Those who start new businesses with men have limited opportunities to move into leadership roles, and when they co-found a business with their husbands, they have even fewer chances to be in charge, according to a statement from the association.

Even when they're at well-established companies, the number of women leading board room meetings still lags far behind men. They hold 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 4.6 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions, according to a January report from Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to creating diverse work environments.

[Consider four ways women can thrive in business school.]

A number of factors – such as who actually brings in the money or the internal dynamics of a romantic relationship between business partners – can determine who leads a company, experts say. But some women believe a business school background can help women receive the tactile knowledge and social skills needed to lead.

"What business schools do is they allow us to even the playing field," says Nancy Rothbard, an associate professor at The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania.

Students at the Simmons School of Management, for example, take classes that specifically prepare women for a male-dominated workplace in addition to courses that cover the basic tenets of business, such as finance, marketing and accounting.

"We have a whole class in negotiations," says Cathy Minehan, the dean at Simmons, which has an MBA program designed for women, though men can apply. In the required course, women learn how to negotiate things that often prevent them from being on the same playing field as their male counterparts, such as salary. The school's organizational behavior classes teach women how to lead and manage groups, she says.

"We teach women how to deal with some of the gender-related issues they might find in the workplace," Minehan says, such as how to be assertive in meetings. "You've got to establish a presence."

[Infographic: Learn about the 2015 Best Business Schools.]

Arika Smith, an MBA candidate graduating in May from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, says at her school, women can learn how to work in team settings that include more men than women and take constructive criticism, something Smith says can be hard for many women to stomach.

Through Duke's Center on Leadership and Ethics, student groups are guided as they evaluate each other's contribution to the team, she says. "You do a lot of kind of critiquing each other about how you worked on the team, what things you can improve, what things you did really well," says Smith. "It's designed to emulate what's going to happen in the workplace."