Women courageous

Michael Page, Madeleine van der Steege and Diane Coetzer discuss the importance, and progress, of embedding gender equality into business education.

Recently, the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development quoted World Economic Forum data to suggest that almost four generations have been lost in the march towards gender equality because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Further, Rebeca Grynspan argued that, ‘unless we solve inequalities between men and women, the pursuit of the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] is not possible’ (Grynspan, 2021).

With many arguing that progress toward gender equality was only progressing at a snail’s pace prior to the pandemic, the substantial pandemic-related setback requires that we expand our efforts to embed diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into our education. Business schools, and universities more broadly, need to model and champion DEI in order to equip future leaders with the self-reflection, insight and courage needed to drive, and accelerate, the societal and workplace changes required.

A recently published book provides a rich set of case studies of women leaders, united by the way they have called on – often extraordinary – courage to transform their lives, work, organisations and societies. Titled Women Courageous: Leading Through the Labyrinth, the eighteen stories describe the true experiences of women leading in the political, academic, non-profit public and private sectors, from different parts of the world (Moss Breen, van der Steege, Stigler Martin and Glick-Smith, 2022).

Professor Dianne Bevelander: One of our own

dianne bevelanderIndeed, one of our own, the late Professor Dianne Bevelander, is among the courageous women leaders profiled in this book that was – heartbreakingly – published just a few months after she passed away in August 2021.

The chapter, “Dianne Bevelander: A Courageous Women of Passion and Resilience” (Coetzer and Page, 2022), explores the courageous life of this pioneering gender equality advocate and activist. It examines Dianne’s professional journey in which she placed gender equality, diversity and inclusion squarely – and unavoidably – on the agenda of a male-dominated international business school. Dianne also institutionalised DEI within the greater university and beyond when she led and founded the trailblazing and award-winning Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM).

In fact, in 2016, in this very publication, Dianne made a resounding call for business schools’ decision-makers to take the lead in developing innovative approaches for dealing with gender inequality. In the article, in her signature forthright way, she argued that business schools ‘need, to consciously and determinedly, change the masculine business paradigm that remains dominant in the vast majority of schools’ (Bevelander and Page, 2016: 19).

In the book, Women Courageous: Leading through the Labyrinth, Dianne’s own story provides a framework for taking the steps to address gender inequality, make necessary but unpopular choices as a Dean, and manage the invariable pushback from the business school environment that will occur.

With the establishment of ECWO, Dianne created a tangible, visible vehicle on campus legitimising the business school’s commitment to women’s continued advancement into leadership positions and the empowerment of women and gender equality for the benefit of the whole society. In keeping with Dianne’s strong beliefs, individual change is as important as structural change in ECWO’s work. ‘At the time, the RSM leadership questioned why I was moving in this direction,’ the chapter authors quote Dianne as recalling. ‘Their attitude was “Everything works – what’s the problem?” They didn’t see the gender imbalance, due to unconscious biases, nor the gender inequality. But I began thinking very deeply about the loss of talent to society if women are not empowered in organisations’ (Coetzer and Page, 2016: 84)

In the Women Courageous chapter, Dianne’s courage shines through her personal battle with terminal cancer that compelled her to climb metaphorical mountains repeatedly, while never losing sight of her limitless commitment to education and promoting the influence and position of women.

An outlier in her health as in her life’s work, Dianne died on August 29th but her impact and legacy continue – not only in the individual women whose lives she impacted and ECWO’s ongoing work but also ‘through the EQUAL4EUROPE project, an H2020-funded four-year project which she largely conceptualised’ (Ginès and Cochrane, 2022). The Dianne Bevelander case study continues in the Gender Equality Plans that will be implemented at academic institutions in the coming years, arising out of the EQUAL4EUROPE project.

Case studies provide insights, research and practices for business school teaching

The stories in Women Courageous are more than an illustration of individual stories of courage – which is defined by two of the book’s editors as …

‘… pushing forward, step by step, while everything is holding you back. Often unnoticed by others, courageous acts come with great emotional challenges, and also with a sense of purpose and determination. Courage is how we transform, not only ourselves but those we support and love and the work to which we have dedicated our lives.’ (Moss Breen and Stigler Martin, 2022: 3)

They are stories of ambition, self-actualisation, co-creation, as well as conflict, loss, betrayal and healing. Each of the eighteen chapters provides a powerful case study for business school professors and teachers seeking to support the creation of more diversity, equity and inclusion in schools and businesses. They address the topic of women walking the leadership labyrinth within such diverse sectors as aerospace, public works, university and school education, nonprofit and the military. Most of the case studies highlight the extent of unconscious bias in contemporary society.

Importantly from a pedagogy perspective, each chapter includes scholarly analysis, and many have extensive reference lists that can be used in teaching. To illustrate, two conceptual frameworks developed by Dianne and her colleagues are used to describe the personal and social attributes that, in no small measure, account for the successes she achieved.

The first framework describes the importance of passion and resilience when pursuing individual and organisational goals. It argues that passion without resilience can lead to frustration and the feeling of being trapped, while resilience without passion makes for a committed follower when the ideas of others resonate with your own. Setting the agenda and leading the transformation requires both passion and resilience. The second framework, which sits squarely within the arena of the challenges faced by females in male-dominated environments, deals with amplification and sisterhood. It articulates how individuals who are not part of the dominant coalition need to come together to amplify calls for change and, thereby, accelerate needed action.

In the case study by Speranza and England in Moss Breen et al. (2022, 279), the authors explore the professional obstacles many single women face in a man’s world or later by having a child mid-career. Dr Carly Speranza did not have female leaders higher up in the military leadership pipeline as role models. A career path in the US Air Force required extraordinary courage to obtain the desirable assignments for success. The commanding officer was highly sceptical when she decided to have a child mid-career. As a woman leader, Carly was an “outsider” in the male-dominated military organisation. However, she served in the US Air Force for two decades. Carly was responsible for hundreds of personnel, deployed eight times across the globe, maintained a long-distance marriage with an Air Force officer, and raised a daughter where few female leaders, let alone mothers, were present. The chapter shows how she built her interpersonal influence with sincerity and that motherhood strengthened her leadership ability and adaptability.

In the chapter by Jenni Frumer and Moss Breen in Moss Breen et al. (2022, 215), Jenni discusses her experience as a Chief Executive Officer during a period of unethical behaviour by male board members and donors. The chapter tracks the story through the phases of board dysfunction. Jenni’s actions unleashed a backlash of dysfunctional, manipulative board responses from a small, influential subgroup of male board members and donors. A political game of intimidation directed at Jenni soon turned into outright threats. Despite the toxic environment and the negative impact on Jenni, she displayed complete transparency. Her moral compass became the biggest threat to her career. The subgroup expected her to follow “unusual” directives and to comply as a woman at the expense of their obligatory moral authority. In the end, Jenni reached out for legal, tactical and technical assistance and received compensatory damages.

Conclusion

women courageousThe importance of aspirational role models when developing leaders is well understood within academia. The case method exemplifies, and the historical bias towards male western protagonists in cases developed by the dominant global case providers is coming under an increasing spotlight. The start of Women’s History Month this year saw the Harvard Business School Gender Initiative release a compilation of cases that ‘feature women protagonists and are recommended by Harvard Business School faculty’ (accessed 03/05/2022).

Women Courageous: Leading through the Labyrinth offers a valuable addition to traditional business school cases. Courage and leadership have been synonymous since the earliest tales of humanity. Courage is the fuel of transformation that ignites in the chaos of major challenges we face throughout our lives. It enables us to transcend the circumstances and stoke our instinctive hope in humanity, the future, the world and ourselves. Although they do not conform to the traditional format of a teaching case that includes a carefully crafted teaching note, the personal leadership stories captured by Women Courageous invite a rich dialogue of the substantial physical, moral and social courage of women from different corners of the world – a dialogue guaranteed to bring underlying theories of leadership and individual transformation alive for many students. And, a dialogue that is particularly inspirational for the increasing number of female students and executives who are at the forefront of efforts to create more inclusive and just businesses and societies.


Sources
Bevelander, D.L. and Page, M.J. 2016. “Gender: Ms-ed opportunities for business schools?” EFMD Global Focus, 10(3): 18-21.

Coetzer, D. and Page, M. 2022. “Dianne Bevelander: A Courageous Woman of Passion and Resilience.” In Moss Breen, J., van der Steege, M., Stigler Martin, S., and Glick-Smith, J.L. 2022. Woman Courageous: Leading through the Labyrinth, Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, UK,79-96.

Frumer, J. and Moss Breen, J. 2022. “The Courage to Roar: Leadership without Remorse.” In Moss Breen, J., van der Steege, M., Stigler Martin, S., and Glick-Smith, J.L. 2022. Woman Courageous: Leading through the Labyrinth, Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, UK, 215-232.

Ginès, A. and Cochrane, V. 2022. “Winter is…going? A gradual thaw in gender equality.” EFMD Global Focus, 16(1):

Grynspan, R. 2021. UNSTAD Gender and Development Forum, 26-28 September 2021. Bridgetown, Barbados, Opening Keynote Address.

Moss Breen, J. and Stigler Martin, S. 2022. “Introduction.” In Moss Breen, J., van der Steege, M., Stigler Martin, S., and Glick-Smith, J.L. 2022. Woman Courageous: Leading through the Labyrinth, Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, UK, 1-8.

Moss Breen, J., van der Steege, M., Stigler Martin, S. and Glick-Smith, J.L. 2022. Woman Courageous: Leading through the Labyrinth, Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, UK.

Speranza, C. and England, C. 2022. “The Courage to Navigate a Man’s World.” In Moss Breen, J., van der Steege, M., Stigler Martin, S., and Glick-Smith, J.L. 2022. Woman Courageous: Leading through the Labyrinth, Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, UK, 279-295.

Women courageous

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