Femme-BAs: How Rutgers Business School Wins with Women

In this global economy, we need to make sure teams represent the community which will be using their products and services … if we’re going to be homogenous and similar, we’re not going to get very far.

Dr. Sharon Lydon, Senior Associate Dean of MBA programs at Rutgers Business School

The old school rankings of MBA programs traditionally weight some combination of the following: graduate salaries, faculty publications, recruiter surveys, and employment data. But if a ranking is meant to determine which schools best prepare their students for entry into the future of business, those data points aren’t enough. Can an MBA program be truly forward-thinking when its demographics belong to a previous century?

The gender gap in business leadership is a sad fact: despite being 44 percent of the S&P labor force, women only occupy 25 percent of executive management roles; only 20 percent of board seats; and only 6 percent of CEO positions. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Experts agree that moving toward gender equality is not only the right thing to do but it’s the smart thing to do. So shouldn’t MBA programs—where women frequently make up less than 38 percent of the student body—be focused on achieving it?

Consider Rutgers Business School, which excels at the traditional metrics. CEO Magazine ranks their global executive MBA as 11th best in the world. Financial Times has RBS in the top ten in four categories: corporate strategy, economics, statistics, and manufacturing/logistics. But one statistic, in particular, stands out: in 2014, over 50 percent of new MBA students at RBS were female. In the intervening years, the female population of MBA students at RBS has leveled out closer to the national average. It’s also caught the attention of the RBS administration and has got them changing the way they do business.

Metrics don’t tell the whole story. To drive trends requires not only paying attention to quantitative performance indicators but also figuring out what qualitative factors lay beneath them. And one of the things that makes RBS truly forward-thinking is its commitment to inclusion and equality at the ground level.


“Research shows it’s the diversity of ideas and the diversity of backgrounds that create successful teams,” says Dr. Sharon Lydon, senior associate dean of MBA programs at Rutgers Business School. “And in this global economy, we need to make sure teams represent the community which will be using their products and services. Diversity is only going to help further advance what we’re doing. But if we’re going to be homogenous and similar, we’re not going to get very far.”

In addition to her administration duties at RBS, Dr. Lydon is an associate professor of professional practice. She teaches a leadership course in the Department of Supply Chain Management. She received her PhD in organizational behavior from George Washington University with a research focus in entrepreneurial leadership.

“We’re in a day and age where everybody is working on some sort of change initiative,” Dr. Lydon says. “Whether it’s digital transformation, corporate restructuring, or new product launches, it revolves around intense change and the more diverse inputs you have, the better results you have.”

In Dr. Lydon’s view, the gender gap in business leadership is largely reflected in MBA programs. There’s a bit of a paradox at work: leaders tend to hire talent that looks similar to itself and talent tends to seek employment where it can see itself reflected in the leadership. To fix a self-fulfilling prophecy, it takes bold strokes of change that can inspire further change.

How Rutgers University Supports Women

Rutgers has taken those steps by putting women in key leadership positions. Dean Lei Lei is the first female dean of RBS. Nancy Cantor is the chancellor of the university’s Newark campus. Both women put their passion for diversity and inclusion into strategic decisions and academic programming. There are also smaller, incremental changes taking place which continue a shift towards greater equality: using more women as protagonists in business case studies, encouraging faculty to call on more women in the classroom, and bolstering student services and opportunities for mentorship.

“When I was getting my PhD, I had male and female mentors that were instrumental,” Dr. Lydon says. “Then, when I came here, I’ve had Dean Lei and other faculty who have made me aware of things that I didn’t know were possible and encouraged me to take steps that I couldn’t have done without them.”

In her role as senior associate dean, Dr. Lydon makes sure to perpetuate that virtuous cycle of mentorship. She gives out her personal cell phone number to every MBA student and encourages them to call or text her with questions and concerns. Meanwhile, the MBA program has peer-to-peer mentoring for its students organized by Miriam Alvarez, assistant dean of student services, as well as a full-fledged program that pairs full-time MBA students with senior executives led by Sangeeta Rao, the assistant dean of mentoring.

“You really have to foster a community of helping one another,” Dr. Lydon says. “A high tide lifts all boats.”

Diversity is a theme throughout the Rutgers ecosystem. Every year since 1997, the university has been ranked first in the nation for the diversity of its student body. The university’s Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities (SJE) ensures social, educational, and leadership development programs for LGBT students and allies. The school also houses revolutionary research organizations such as the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) and Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP).

Within the business school specifically, electives reinforce the point, covering topics such as managing workforce diversity, multinational cross-cultural management, women in business leadership, and social entrepreneurship. For undergraduates, the Women BUILD (Business Undergraduates in Leadership Development) program led by Sangeeta Rao is designed to empower undergraduate women by removing barriers and equipping them with the confidence and expertise necessary to succeed.

For RBS, all that wasn’t enough. Pockets of MBA programming still lacked representation and inclusiveness. So, in May 2019, the business school announced the Women’s Initiative, which aims to develop female leaders through further mentoring, workshops, scholarships, case competitions, and conferences. RBS envisions the creation of a loop of thought leadership between alumni, corporations, faculty, and students. The vision of the Women’s Initiative originated from Lisa Kaplowitz, professor of professional practice, finance and economics; Loubna Erraji, director, executive MBA career management and alumni relations; Sangeeta Rao, assistant dean of mentoring; and of course, Lei Lei, dean of Rutgers Business School. While the initiative is still in the nascent stage, it’s the continuation of a trend at RBS: promoting the sort of diverse and inclusive atmosphere that today’s business experts find to be critical for innovation and success.

“It may be hard, it may be difficult, but you can do it,” Dr. Lydon says, in giving words of advice to young women considering their MBA options. “You don’t have to be perfect. There are lots of people who are here to help and support you and cheer for you and encourage you. You’re not alone.”

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about how new and aspiring business school students can best plan their education and careers. In the Two Views series, he conducts detailed interviews with recent business school alumni, with a particular focus on the choice between in-person, online, and hybrid learning models. His Femme-BA series highlights business schools that not only excel academically but also take unique and robust steps to support a diverse and inclusive learning environment for women.

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