B-School Leadership Through a Different Lens

Two women are shattering a glass ceiling for business school deans.

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Just eight women hold the deanship position at a top graduate business and management school in the United States, so it stands to reason that females bring different life experiences and perspective to this role than their male counterparts. I'll take a look at two women who have been making headlines over the past year since taking the reins at their respective schools.

Sally Blount, appointed dean of the Kellogg School of Management in July 2010, hit the ground running and hasn't eased up yet. Since coming on board, Blount has overseen the launch of Kellogg's new Think Bravely advertising campaign; conducted a six-month international competition to design Kellogg's new, state-of the-art building on Northwestern's Evanston, Ill., campus; embarked on a nine-month strategic planning process with Kellogg faculty to investigate their positioning goals as educators and researchers; and restructured Kellogg's decades-old organizational structure.

"I don't know any other dean who has had to do this much in the first year," Blount says. "I would have loved to save some of that for year two or three, but the world is moving fast."

[Read about how more women are going to business school.]

In fact, Blount believes the fundamental structure of the education field is currently changing, undergoing the globalization that many other industries have already experienced. Therefore, she believes that business education needs a larger refocusing than the broader focus on ethics that many called for after the 2008 economic crisis.

"I believe in ethics," says Blount. "However, I've also done a whole lot of research on the effectiveness of ethics education. While people like to teach ethics, it's not clear what kind of teaching of ethics actually changes behavior."

Instead, Blount continues, "I think we need to educate a generation of students who have a much deeper appreciation of the interface between private enterprise and public governance and social well-being."

Though Blount is one of the few women who have been appointed dean at a top-ranked business school, she sees this oversight changing as well. "Historically, there has been a feeder issue," says Blount. "There haven't been as many women in business education. As we get more female faculty, we're beginning to see more female deans. Also, I think we've reached a place in modern society where women can take leadership positions and be true to who they are as people, and not have to mute their behavior to look like a more traditional stereotype."

[Learn about the male-female wage gap, post-M.B.A.]

Just as media interest kicked up to mark Blount's first anniversary on the job this summer, another woman made headlines in July 2011 when the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business appointed Alison Davis-Blake as its first female dean. Prior to that position, Davis-Blake was also the first female dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Davis-Blake calls the dearth of female deans at top business schools a "pipeline problem," as candidates have to hit several rungs of the ladder—Ph.D., professorial job, tenure, full professorship—before even being considered for the job.

Further complicating matters, many women feel reluctant to call attention to any special issues they have to manage. "But if you're going to get more women attuned to the fact that you can manage and have a full life, people have to be willing to work against that tendency and be a little more candid about how you balance all these things," Davis-Blake says.

"Women entering the profession may think that the issues are insurmountable, that the only way you are in the upper levels is by making unpalatable sacrifices. That myth can't be really broken unless people are more candid."

[Read about how business schools hope to shatter a sturdy glass ceiling.]

Given that women make up a small minority of management education leadership, Davis-Blake was asked in a 2010 Financial Times interview how she dealt with male-dominated environments. "If I'm in the extreme minority I always assume I need to perform twice as well to get half the credit as a member of the majority group and I act accordingly," she replied.

Highly regarded for her experience with globalizing the educational experience of students, Davis-Blake intends to make the school's global footprint more clear and defined. "The landscape is changing really rapidly. For business schools, the norm used to be that everyone comes to the United States. I think there is a trend toward more people having interests that drive desires for initial placement outside the U.S.," she tells the Monroe paper. 

As for Kellogg School's future, Blount says, "We're the people who brought team work and collaboration into the business school domain and changed how everyone is educating. We need to be doing that again. That's our role in the marketplace. It's Kellogg's job to constantly look forward about what education, research, and impact look like in the 21st century."