More than 200 deans, associate deans and professionals from around the globe gathered at GW to talk about creating a more inclusive future in the business world.
By Nick Erickson
At least with a glass ceiling, Gloria Blackwell, M.A. ‘91, would have been able to see the other side’s potential, even if those opportunities were limited. As a Black woman in business, however, she often felt her ceiling was made of concrete.
But Blackwell told an audience Friday morning at the inaugural Women in Business Education (WiBE) conference, hosted by George Washington University, that the seemingly impossible task never deterred her from breaking through those barriers.
She burst all the way through and is now only the second woman of color to lead the American Association of University Women (AAUW), an organization 140 years old, as its CEO.
“I went about my business knowing I was qualified and could make it happen,” said Blackwell, who noted she often took on tasks other colleagues wouldn’t take in order to climb the ladder.
Blackwell earned her master’s degree from GW in human development and education and was one of two speakers for WiBE’s keynote firestarter speech, joining former GW Associate Dean and Professor of Finance Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou in discussing how to create a more inclusive future in the business world. GW School of Business (GWSB) Vice Dean of Strategy Liesl Riddle moderated the conversation.
Both Blackwell and Bajeux-Besnainou, now dean and professor of finance at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, said progress must be intentional to bridge gaps women face in the business and higher education world.
Bajeux-Besnainou, who taught finance at GW for 21 years from 1994 to 2015, mentioned that some of the biggest hurdles women face in advancing to business leadership positions are invisible. When she took on a leadership role at GW, becoming chair of the finance department in 2011 and later associate dean for undergraduate programs, she found herself questioning whether she was qualified. But thanks to a strong support system, she tackled those roles and hasn’t looked back, taking on leadership positions at other institutions and pushing the conversation forward.
“I think it’s about the confidence you can find in yourself,” Bajeux-Besnainou said.
Those words fell on the ears of more than 200 deans, vice deans and other faculty and staff members from businesses schools around the world attended the first-ever WiBE conference, which ran from Thursday to Saturday with breakout sessions and networking events throughout the weekend. The conference also raffled off welcome bags and prizes that featured products from six GWSB alumna entrepreneurs, some of whom were New Venture Competition winners.
GW was at an appropriate setting as GWSB has been globally recognized for its women in business efforts. The global M.B.A. program has 57% women enrollment, which the Financial Times ranked No. 1 in the entire country. Bajeux-Besnainou also noted that when she was first at GW, she was the only woman in the finance department but that that is no longer the case, which was encouraging to see.
GWSB Dean Anuj Mehrotra, though proud of the accomplishments to this point, said there is more room to grow. He noted that around 20% of the business school deans around the country are women. According to WiBE, one in four deans across universities are women, while one in three are associate deans. That’s in addition to women accounting for just 15% of Fortune 500 CEOs. Mehrotra was excited to welcome leaders to campus who are committed to moving the needle even more.
“Metrics can sometimes demonstrate success, but we want to make sure that we are continuing to advance women in business,” Mehrotra said. “Empowering women must live in our strategic plans, and it also must be part of our everyday decision making.”
WiBE is an organization committed to bringing changemakers together to build a cohesive network of future leaders in business organization. It was also founded by GW alum Lisa Leander, M.A. ‘07.
While working with 100 different business schools in 22 countries over the last 20 years, Leander struggled to find gender balance and diversity at every committee meeting, conference agenda or dean’s council. In 2020, she carried through on a vision five years in the making to create WiBE, and she was thrilled to see it unfold at the conference, encouraging attendees to continue opening the conversation and to not hold back.
“I want to encourage all of you to go after it,” Leander said.
“Create” was the theme of the conference, and Riddle noted the importance of thinking collaboratively and outside the box to break barriers and smash those glass—or concrete—ceilings.
“This conference is a lot about creating the future,” Riddle said. “It’s going to take all of us joining hands to make progress.”