At the IIM USA meet at Pinnacle Point, I asked a question of Professor Samir Barua, Director of IIM/Ahmedabad, about women students. Back when I was there, I said, I was one of 8 women amid a class of 110 students. What was the situation now?
It hadn’t really changed. Around 20% of the applicants and 9% – 17% of the students at IIM/A are women.
For reference: the Graduate School of Business at Stanford has 34% women; while Harvard Business School has 39%. (I took the numbers from the class profiles posted on their websites.)
A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: WOULD COMPANIES HIRE WOMEN?
When I joined IIM, they told us that the main concern about women students was that they would fare badly at Placement, spoiling the Institute’s record; and that later they would struggle in corporate life. It wasn’t entirely a misplaced fear at the time: Those days many companies were biased and two of the top employers, Tata Administrative Service (TAS) and consulting firm AF Ferguson & Co (AFF), didn’t hire women.
But times were already changing; the women in our class were hired quickly. I actually worked for AFF only a few years later; by then, nearly half its consultants were female. TAS started hiring women (if I recall correctly) the very next year.
Nor, it would seem, did women do badly in corporate life once they got there. Chandrika (Krishnamurthy) Tandon joined Citibank, went on to a successful professional career at McKinsey before setting up her own consulting company (and then segued, very successfully again, into devotional music). Her sister, Indra (Krishnamurthy) Nooyi (from IIM Calcutta) heads Pepsico. Sri (Govindswamy) Zaheer is the
interim dean of Carlson School of Business at University of Minnesota. [Edited to Add: As of March 2012, she’s the Dean.] Nadira (Hirani) Chaturvedi was an entrepreneur, starting an auto ancillaries business; these days, she’s teaching entrepreneurship and business strategy at a business school in Delhi. Veena (Gosain) Mankar, after a career in banking and finance, started a microlending institution, SwaadharFinServe. And that’s just people I know. There are hundreds of others out there, who with the passage of time may well be the Narayana Moorthys and Bill Gateses and Meg Whitmans of the future. (Meg Whitman, incidentally, is from Harvard Business School.)
So clearly, the argument that the IIMs would graduate unemployable and unsuccessful women has evaporated.
BUT WOMEN STILL FIND IT HARDER TO GET IN
So what’s the reason now? I can understand that only 20% of the applicants are women; in some ways, India’s still pretty conservative and families might balk at sending their daughters away to a male-dominated school. But how is it that only 9-17% of the students are female? That implies that women applicants actually have a poorer chance of getting in then men do — in some years, less than half the chance.
Later that evening, I had an opportunity to discuss it further with Professor Barua. He thought it was probably a “long-tailed distribution” problem. Male applicants do better — and worse — then females. If you were to graph their admission test scores, men would be over-represented at the tails of the distribution.
The graph here demonstrates the issue. (It’s just an example, it doesn’t actually show any data.) If the women’s test scores were represented by the blue curve, and the men’s by the red curve, it’s evident that an institute that took under 1% of applicants would be selecting mainly off the right-hand side red curve. So for an institute like IIM/A, which accepts something like 0.5% to 1% of applicants, the accepted students are predominantly male.
Oh, I said, your test must skew quantitative. It’s well known, whether through nurture, nature, or social expectations, that the kind of male-female distribution he described is typical of quantitative tests.
Yes, he said. The tests were indeed very quantitative. And I can see why. In India, especially with such tremendous competition for a limited number of places, the appearance of objectivity is very important. What could be more objective than a quantitative test?
But. What that does, of course, is then to skew management school admissions to a certain profile: Male, quantitatively-oriented. I think we had perhaps 10 students in my class who didn’t come from an engineering or science background. And even those few were from disciplines like Economics or Accounting. From what I read, the situation now is not so different. (Unlike Stanford and Harvard, IIM Ahmedabad doesn’t post a convenient breakout of its student profile.)
DOES IT MATTER?
I would argue that it does indeed matter. Mid-career, I did a second MBA, this time at UCLA’s Anderson School. My class included someone who’d been a professional ballet dancer. And two doctors. And students from some 40 countries. And a very large number of women. It made for a very different experience. It was practical rather than analytical, informed by what people from all these different backgrounds brought to it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting quantitative analysis is meaningless; I’ve spent chunks of my career building models and spreadsheets and making forecasts. Numbers are attractive and useful, converting data into information is beguilingly so. But equally, it’s clear to me that what makes for an ability to succeed in the business world is a flexible understanding of the underlying realities. And the ability to work successfully with people Not Like You. Most workplaces are not very homogenous.
As India internationalizes, this will only become more important. As the Stanford website says, “The world is changing quickly and so are the challenges that face tomorrow’s leaders.”
HOW NOT TO FIX IT
Recently, someone forwarded me a news item: that some or all of the IIMs were going to tackle this issue in a typically Indian way, with “grace-marks.” It wasn’t clear from the article exactly what IIM/A (or IIM/B or IIM/C) was planning to do, but IIM Lucknow was going to award 5 “grace marks” to every woman applicant, and 2 to every non-engineer. IIM Rohtak was offering 20 points to every woman applicant, and 20 also to every non-engineer (not clear whether that would give women non-engineers 40 points). IIM Raipur would add 30 points for women-non-engineers, according to the article.
Diversity is, I believe, important. Not just as a matter of fairness, but as I argued, as a matter of learning. Only this is the wrong way to do it.
The problem with grace marks is that it immediately tags that class of entrants as inferior and also-ran. (It even quantifies the degree of perceived inferiority.) It creates resentment among people who believe that they should have had the places taken by the inferior (but female or non-quant) candidate.
The right way, in my opinion would be to take a second look at the admissions process. Should it have such a quantitative bias? Do the objective tests really reflect the potential of a candidate to succeed in the business world? The evidence suggests not. (I’m not suggesting it’s a disqualification, just not a necessary one.)
Stanford uses an objective test, the GMAT, as part of its admission process. The range among admitted students is substantial: 530 to 790. Harvard uses it too, and has an even wider range: 490-790.
The article didn’t say, but it’s possible that’s the approach taken by IIM/A. It has a writing test and a group discussion. Perhaps it’s a matter of weighting the components of the admissions differently, relying less on the quantitative sections.