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Advocate For Yourself, Pursue Opportunities, And Hold The Door Open For Those Following In Your Footsteps

An interview with Donna Swinford, Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and MBA Admissions at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business

In what ways do you think women have made progress over the years, and where do you see room for more progress?

As of January 1st, there are 53 women CEOs in the Fortune 500 – barely over 10% but the highest it’s ever been. While it’s important to celebrate small victories, we have a very long way to go. As we continue to see more women graduating from MBA programs and with other advanced degrees, our representation in leadership roles across many industries will continue to grow. In 1993, here at Booth, women comprised 21% (119) of the class. This year, in 2023, more women will graduate with a Booth MBA than any other year in the school’s history. With more women in the classroom and part of the conversation – and more men growing up in an increasingly equitable environment – we’ll surely continue to see progress.

However, this week, new data from Pew Research Center showed the gender wage gap made little to no progress over the past 20 years. As we see more women pursuing careers in STEM- and business-related fields, the hope is that the gap will continue to narrow. I’m confident that our women will positively impact any of their chosen professions. I’m proud to say that we provide them with the educational opportunities to pursue careers on equal footing.

Who are the women who have been influential in your life or who you look up to as role models? 

Reflecting on my career, I owe an especially large thank-you to Lanni, my mentor from early in my career. Lanni showed me how to stand up for myself and speak my mind without fear of reprisal. I found it intimidating to express my ideas, and doubly so to express any inquisitive or speculative sentiment regarding other people’s ideas. Lanni showed me, as a woman, that I have a seat at the proverbial table and a right to self-expression coupled with the cultivation of an inquiring mind.

Then there’s Nora. A sophomore at the University of Illinois who is smart, compassionate, confident, and, lucky for me, my daughter. Over the years, she has grown into a woman who knows she can do anything. Watching her pursue her endeavors with a confidence I could only dream of at her age is, as her mother, incredibly rewarding.

Have you faced any particular challenges or obstacles as a woman in business education, and how did you overcome them?

As a mom, I found it hard to balance the work/life equation. A particularly formative experience occurred while working on a project but needing to pick up my kids from daycare. While I intended to log back in to work after picking them up, my female boss never gave me a chance. Instead, she yelled at me, exclaiming, “You’re not a team player!” Women need to help other women succeed rather than tear each other down. Additionally, no one should have to work in a toxic environment, and we need to empower women to feel confident moving on and up.

As a senior leader in the industry, what advice would you give to women who are just starting their career in business education?

Advocate for yourself. You’d very likely advocate, and advocate well, for someone else. Treat yourself with the same sense of compassion and justice. Be comfortable being uncomfortable with speaking up. Then do it. Pursue opportunities. And, finally, as you move up and into your future, hold the door open for those following in your footsteps.

How do you collaborate with other stakeholders, such as corporate partners, academic organizations, Forté, etc, to promote gender diversity and equity in business education?

MBA programs are fortunate to engage students at a critical time in their professional journeys. What our MBA students experience on campus – and who they experience it with – can shape their view of “effective leadership” for the rest of their careers. Our graduates pursue influential organizations and roles that will have lasting impact on business and society. That is a huge responsibility that we do not take lightly.

In the classroom, Booth continues to redefine leadership by emphasizing the impact of business decisions on both the economy and society. Candid topics like the importance of diversity and equity in business leadership are explored in courses such as “Women As CEOs, Entrepreneurs, Investors, Executives & Directors”, which examines the legal, cultural, and regulatory dynamics in leading organizations worldwide. Our Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation helps support research on gender gaps in the workplace. The Stigler Center for the Study of the Economy and the State promotes the power of markets to enhance human welfare, spotlighting issues affecting women worldwide. And Booth’s lone required course (LEAD – Leadership Effectiveness and Development), emphasizes skill-building around inclusivity, perceptions, and cross-cultural awareness.

In addition what our students learn in the classroom, Booth seeks to recruit classes with equal representation that reflect the diversity of the world around us. One of the best ways to enhance diversity in MBA programs is through collaboration with leading organizations that address the under-representation of women in business leadership roles. Booth is a founding sponsor of the Forté Foundation, offering a combination of scholarships, career resources, networking and mentoring opportunities to empower more women to pursue business careers. We also participate in the Women’s Leadership Conference and the MBA Launch program, providing students with valuable resources and tools to help them succeed in business school and beyond.

We partner with groups like Management Leaders for Tomorrow and the Posse Foundation, which help identify diverse leaders and build equitable workspaces. We work with programs like Service to Schools to offer guidance and resources for veterans pursuing graduate education. Our innovative collaboration with Chicago Scholars creates an early pipeline of support for first-generation college students from under-resourced communities in Chicago.

These partnerships not only help us identify and recruit talent, but also promote gender diversity and equity throughout the business landscape. These relationships enable us to expand the talent pipeline into leading industries and companies. None of this would be possible without the involvement of current students, alumnae, faculty, and corporate partners, who help champion mentorship-led platforms and conferences like Booth Women Connect. Groups such as the Chicago Women in Business (CWiB) and the Booth Women’s Network foster communities that will continue to empower women for professional success throughout their careers

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