Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Business School—And in Business

How far women decide to go in business will in part be determined by the structure of the American family and how we decide to allocate our resources.
  • Transcript


Question: Why did it take so long for a woman to be a top business school dean?

Sally Blount: I never thought of myself as one of the first wave of women, much of my career I thought that I’d sort of been following in the women who had went ahead of me and blazing the trails that made it possible to do what I have done. And this really is the first point in my life where I’ve gotten to be the first woman.

I think a lot of the reason it happened has a lot to do with who Kellogg is. It has a lot to do also with the state of where business education has gotten to. Right now, women students come up to me and women from many different areas come up and say, “How did you get to be Dean of Kellogg.” And I said, well don’t follow my model, it was the wrong one. Right? A) I was a woman, B) I was a social psychologist rather than an economist, and C) I'd just spent six years in undergraduate business education. And none of those have tended to be the power alleys.

And yet what I think it tell us, the fact that Kellogg was ready to appoint a woman in a top business school was, is that the world has changed a lot. There’s a much deeper appreciation of psychology in business school environments in addition to economics. That’s something I knew was important when I made the choice to study psychology years ago. But I think the world has certainly embraced that view more so.

Question: How can business schools attract more women? 

Sally Blount: It’s an interesting thing that when you look at graduate schools of business, about 30% to 35% of the students tend to be women—and this is true at all top business schools, through every sort of sector of the business school education domain. Whereas, if you look at law schools and you look at medical schools, they tend to be about 50% women. And the feeder undergraduate programs at colleges and research universities are now, most of them are at least 50% women, if not more.

This persistent fact that business schools are lower is an interesting question and people are just beginning to get some data around it. I recently read a study done by the Simmons College and School of Business and it’s, finding there are negative attitudes towards business in women in the high school and the junior years and I think that may be part of explaining why there are not as many women are going to graduate schools of business.

I still think it’s a perplexing question though because business is such a dominant institution in our society and so many people are drawn to it. It’s the most popular undergraduate major in the country. So while I see the negative business attitudes piece, you know, I keep wondering, is that the whole answer. It’s important data.

It’s the cheapest degree; it’s only two years rather than three, four or five. So it truly is a perplexing question. Part of it I wonder is if we haven’t misrepresented in some ways what you learn at business school.

To me, the greatest skill that you learn is how to build effective organizations. You learn about the markets and how they work, but you learn how to build effective organizations, which is how we, as human beings, organize, which is how we get things done. And I think if we did a better job at explaining to people that that’s what it’s about, I think that more women would be drawn to it because women naturally organize—in their communities in our families, in
our churches, and you know, in all sorts of domains.

And I can’t help wondering if we need to get more enlightened language so people truly understand that business school really is about building effective organizations within a market context. But it can also be in a not-for-profit context, or a religious context.

Question: Why are there so few women in business?

Sally Blount: I think it’s just a question of time, quite honestly, in terms to the unique challenges to women. We’ve broken the glass ceilings now in many places. Not maybe at high numbers as some people would have hoped, but we’ve done it. It’s interesting that we broke the glass ceiling of Harvard before we did over major business school, for example. Right? We’ve broken the glass ceilings of a lot of Fortune 500 companies. I recently had the privilege of being asked to go to the Fortune Most Power Women Summit. It was in Washington D.C. this past fall. And the room was just packed with these incredibly talented women. And I looked around and I found myself intimidated and I realize people are intimidated by what I’ve done.

I mean, I think that we’re doing it; it’s a question of choices for women because it does require tradeoffs. You don't get to have it all. You can’t have a perfect marriage, perfect kids, a perfect job and be in perfect shape physically. And I think it’s a question of trade-offs. And how far women decide to go into business I think will in part be determined by choices about child rearing. And the structure of the American family and how we decide to allocate our resources.