How higher education can empower women in business

SOURCE: Shutterstock
More women need to take up leadership roles in executive boards to encourage diversity.

By U2B Staff 

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Out of the top 100 companies based on local market capitalisation in the US, Canada, UK, Europe, Australia, Sweden, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, only six of the companies have women CEOs. 

The low number of women present extends to the rest of the senior executive board. According to a report by Grant Thorton, 29 percent of senior management roles worldwide were held by women in 2019. 

An even more astonishing fact is that this is the highest ever record of women in senior executive roles. 

Although these numbers seem promising, there is still a long way to go before more women will be allowed to have a voice in some of the world’s leading businesses. 


This is likely because the urgency has not been felt through all levels. In the UK, a government-backed report by the Hampton-Alexander Review revealed that we are still a long way from reaching the 2020 target of 33 percent of women holding senior executive positions in Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) 350 companies.

There also seems to be an imbalance in terms of the global distribution of women business leaders and those holding senior executive roles across different regions. It can be seen that while some nations thrive in building businesses with diverse senior management, others seem to fall behind. 

Women in Business
Source: Grant Thorton Women in Business: Building a blueprint to Action (2019): p.8.11

Why we need more women in senior leadership roles


That being said, we could question if there’s any urgency at all to bring more women in to fill these senior executive roles. What benefits do women bring to the boardroom? 

In the Grant Thorton report, global leader Kim Schmit addressed the need and benefits for businesses to promote more women among their higher ranks. 

“There is a significant research base demonstrating a strong correlation between diversity at a leadership level and business results,” she said. 

“In today’s complex, volatile environment, organisations need to be responsive and innovative. And we know there is a direct link between innovation and diversity. Lasting diversity can only be achieved by committed action to promote women, through sponsorship and support, by creating opportunities, removing biases and shaping an inclusive culture.”

Women are needed more than ever in today’s leading businesses to provide more intuitive and balanced insight and to shape a leadership community that encompasses varied viewpoints and ideas to promote further innovation. 

“This government is absolutely committed to increasing diversity in business, and we are leading the way in supporting the work of the Hampton Alexander Review to make sure FTSE companies support and develop their female talent pipeline,” said UK Minister of Women Victoria Atkins.

“Women are good for business: they bring valuable perspectives and experiences to the decision-making process. FTSE 350 companies need to do their bit and accelerate progress. There is no excuse for having an all-male board.” 

We’re making good progress in bringing more women into the boardroom, now it’s a matter of maintaining this momentum and pushing forward. 

Higher education plays a significant role in shaping values, mindsets and confidence in women to empower them to take on more prominent roles in businesses. 

With the support of higher education, more women in business will be encouraged to pursue their careers further. At the same time, more leading companies will realise the importance and significance of a diverse executive board. 

More women need higher education 


The six women CEOs found within the top 100 companies comprise of intelligent and skilled women leaders who have been to some of the worlds most prestigious higher education institutions such as MIT, Oxford, and the University of New South Wales. 

Higher education plays a prominent role in setting the foundational skills required when graduates enter the workforce. 

Many progressive universities have implemented various measures to ensure women are graduating with better degrees, achieving better academic accomplishments and are enrolling in areas previously dominated by men. 

For instance, the University of London Worldwide network has had a prominent track record of empowering women in higher education with its Leading Women initiative. 

Currently, the network has offered scholarships to about 150 women to enrol in its Global MBA programme. The programme is available worldwide through distance learning and equips women with the knowledge, skills and capabilities to break gender barriers in their current careers of choice. 

With specialisms in Law, Finance, Accountancy, Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Leadership, women will be on the pathway to advance their careers towards an executive level. 

This addresses the fact that women across the world are still not on par with men in terms of salaries, responsibilities and promotions despite many entering the business world. 

Other initiatives of similar impact include HeforShe by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women that provides support for universities to initiate campaigns and movements to advocate gender equality; as well as Advance HE’s Athena SWAN charter which drives participating institutions to advocate for the further involvement of women in STEMM and Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, Business and Law (AHSSBL) sectors. 


Supporting women in business


Besides ensuring women are academically prepared to advance careers at an executive level, universities and higher education organisations also play a strong role in supporting aspiring women entrepreneurs. 

Many leading universities across the US, Australia and UK have implemented strong guidelines that encourage the empowerment of women-owned businesses. This ranges from quotas for procurement to accelerator programmes that prioritise women-led startups. 

According to the United Nations, less than one percent of women-owned businesses obtain access to procurement markets and win contracts. To counter this, university procurement policies have a certain allocated percentage to prioritise women, minority and disabled-owned businesses. 

Besides that, university networks also come up with initiatives that have helped women launch innovative startups into action.

Programmes such as the California University system’s Big Idea, MIT’s IDEAS, and the University of San Diego’s Women Innovators Initiative have encouraged more participation from female students. 

More universities are also responsible for accelerator programmes that not only provide aspiring women entrepreneurs with funding to start their businesses but also with mentorship and expertise to get them on the right track. 

Through these efforts, higher education plays a prominent role in stimulating more women to be involved in businesses and in turn, helping them join the ranks of prominent business leaders on a global scale. 

Women in Business
There are various initiatives that help women boost their confidence and leadership skills. Source: Shutterstock.

Upskilling and empowering women 


As few women are seen holding senior executive roles in the world’s leading businesses, the number of women enrolled in executive education and leadership enhancement programmes are even more scarce. 

However, universities are beginning to realise the benefits of bringing women into boardrooms. 

There are more and more leadership programmes being established by world-class universities to empower, upskill and connect women with like-minded industry leaders to join the ranks of senior executives. 

Oxford University’s Saïd Business School has launched the Oxford Women’s Leadership Programme, an online professional development programme that empowers and instils confidence in women business leaders. It encompasses three overarching themes which are self-acceptance, self-management, and self-development. 

On a similar note in Australia, the University of New South Wales has its own Women in Leadership programme that brings women leaders in the industry, not-for-profit and entrepreneurial backgrounds in a professional network to collaborate, discuss and enhance their leadership skills. 

Professional development programmes such as these which are specially designed for women in business help instil values of leadership, confidence and ambition that empower women to climb the career ladder and equip them with the right skills and mindset to do so.