Being a Woman at Fuqua is a Beautiful Thing

Recently in the media, there has been quite a buzz about being a woman in business school, thanks to the New York Times’ article about Harvard Business School and its policies regarding gender equity. While I can’t comment firsthand about the culture at HBS, I can give an accurate account of what I thought about when applying to business schools, my experience at Fuqua, and what I’ve been able to do while at Fuqua to increase awareness about women’s roles both in the classroom and in the professional arena. While strides can still be made toward complete gender equality in business school programs across the country, I believe that Fuqua is well on its way to ensuring that both males and females are respected and invited to every conversation.

female mba student

Female students at Fuqua don’t seem to think twice about raising their hand and speaking up.

Coming from the military, I was used to working in an environment that was predominately male. And to be quite honest, I learned to enjoy the challenges and advantages that being a woman leader presented within the military context. Bringing a different perspective to the table and having alternative priorities than some of my male (and female) colleagues made me a valuable asset to our team, and exposed me to the thorough practices of regimented, mission-driven individuals, which was a change from some of my undergraduate college leadership roles.

That being said, I did look at diversity in business school as a relatively high priority because I wanted greater exposure to women in the business world who were determined to break the proverbial glass ceiling. Some of the first conversations I had about choosing a business school were from my outreach efforts to women’s groups because I knew that women were the minority, and I wanted to hear their thoughts on equality in the classroom and after graduation. These candid conversations were extremely valuable and provided me with specific insights from the female perspective. For example, I learned about the reality of classroom dynamics and what types of networking opportunities were available exclusively for women. These conversations helped me to determine which schools to keep at the top of my list.

weekend for women

Fuqua’s annual Weekend for Women is a special event that brings prospective students together.

Women are Everywhere at Fuqua

One aspect of Fuqua that differentiates it from other top-tier programs is Weekend for Women, an annual event in November for prospective female students that provides a chance to come to campus, attend class, and interview with second-year students. While I couldn’t attend when I was a prospective student because of scheduling conflicts, I was impressed by the event, and heard a lot about it. Some of my best friends at Fuqua met their future roommates through the program, and have an incredibly strong friend group based on their interactions 2 years ago! Later, as a student, I volunteered to help with the Weekend for Women, and answered prospective student’s questions face-to-face. I built relationships with them that have continued. This year’s event organizers, two second years, Arika Smith and Hannah Soll-Morris, also planned a speed career networking session, so attendees could ask second years about their summer experiences and about what they’re planning to do full-time. It was a great way to introduce the reality of post-business school choices to prospective students — definitely not something I thought enough about before applying to B-school.

When I decided to apply to Fuqua, another aspect that I took into account was the fact that gender differences weren’t strikingly apparent at Fuqua. There were plenty of female student bloggers, I was contacted by a second-year female veteran, and about half of the admissions staff was female. The fact that only about 35% of my Daytime MBA class is female doesn’t detract from the overall impact and involvement that women have all around Fuqua and on the wider Duke campus, and not just through Fuqua’s Association of Women in Business (AWIB). Fuqua doesn’t need to emphasize gender-neutrality in its marketing strategy because the culture here is one of mutual respect and inclusion, no matter if you’re an international student, a female, or a minority.

Current students and alumnae serve as panelists during the Weekend for Women.

Current students and alumnae serve as panelists during the Weekend for Women.

While at Fuqua, I haven’t been disappointed by the gender diversity on campus or in the classroom. As a first-year, I had plenty of role models to look up to and this year, I’m proud to be a club leader. About 31% of female club presidents are female this year, which is roughly proportionate with the total number of women in my class (35%). Although my section reflected the typical 35/65 percentage split across the genders, I was always able to raise my hand and participate in class, and I witnessed other women in class doing the same — the only thing affecting our air time was our own willingness to speak (or lack thereof).

As a woman who’s doing a concentration in finance and going into banking post-graduation, the only instance where I have noticed the stark split between males and females is in my finance classes. In my Private Equity and Venture Capital Class last term, there were 11 women compared to 66 men. My personal theory as to why this huge difference exists is because women in my class are focusing on marketing or strategy instead of financial fields. Finance professionals are typically and traditionally male, based on what I’ve seen, and my girlfriends just aren’t interested in finance (trust me, the marketing courses at Fuqua are just as quantitatively rigorous as the finance, so I don’t buy the excuse that women aren’t as good at math as men are). The gender divide was much more equitable in my Managing of Innovations class at 26 women and 29 men, and it was quite refreshing to hear more women speak up in class and have an equal divide on our 6-person team, with 3 men and 3 women. Fuqua can’t make women become more interested in finance as a career path. So, until more women rise in professional financial ranks and encourage other women to join them, it will be up to those of us in school to tout the value of our Valuations and Investment courses and encourage our female friends to join us.

I believe it's up to women like me to encourage other women to consider careers in finance.

It’s not unusual for finance classes or events, like this Corporate Finance Panel, to be attended by more men than women.

Changing the Status Quo

I think the best part about being a woman at Fuqua (and the thing that they don’t tell you about during your admissions interviews) is the fact that as a Fuqua student, you have the ability to affect change. I believe that I’ve impacted gender awareness at school through my involvement with Fuqua’s primary woman’s group, AWIB. As Leadership Co-Chair with Chantel Pizarro, we instated “MAP,” which stands for the Male Ambassador Program. Through this initiative, we aim to bring men into specific conversations about gender differences within Fuqua and within broader professional settings.

Last year at AWIB’s annual conference, men were essentially shunned from the discussions and panels because the event was financially sponsored by an outside entity, and we didn’t have control over who attended. This was unfortunate and in response, Chantel and I scheduled 2 events this past fall to increase the dialogue with men (after all, what’s the point in talking about gender issues with only one gender in the room?). Our first event included 40 attendees who listened to a panel of alumni talk about gender perceptions in the work place, and best of all, the gender split of attendees was 50/50! It was the first time I had ever heard a male’s perspective about gender issues (or lack thereof), and the alumni had incredibly insightful comments, too. We also hosted a discussion with faculty and administrators about gender at Fuqua, and we are going to offer a “Sports 101” session during the next term to help inform all first-year students about current events in sports so that they can talk about sports during their internship and job interviews. Sports are often a great ice breaker and conversation starter during interviews, and a lot of recruiters are interested in hearing about Duke athletics.

women in business conference

The Association of Women in Business organizes an annual conference that attracts prominent speakers.

Another group on campus that I have been a part of is Fuqua’s Leading Women (FLW). This organization is for all female Fellows (COLE, Forté, Admissions, CASE, Career), club presidents, and female staff and faculty. My Co-Chair, Ashley Hobbs, and I organize two events each term to bring influential women together in a relaxed social setting. We want to increase the interaction among students, staff, and faculty because we have found that these casual conversations are the ones that spark ideas and new initiatives. While AWIB and MAP are focused on educating both genders about similarities and differences and how they impact each other in the workplace, FLW gives women the white space they need to relax and talk informally with likeminded women about issues that affect them at Fuqua. The differences between these groups shows the variety of support that Fuqua offers to students.

Although I have never expected special treatment because of my gender, the simple fact that we’re allowed to have candid conversations about male and female relationships at Fuqua is an incredibly positive thing. Increasing awareness about subtle biases that both genders have will pay off great dividends when my classmates and I are 10 – 20 years into our careers and have the privilege of hiring, promoting, and retaining qualified candidates. These discussions have only begun thanks to female executives like Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and author of Lean In, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton University Professor and author of this popular article in The Atlantic. We won’t see the results immediately. However, we, both men and women in business school, owe it to future generations to have the conversations now about gender in the workplace — which is why I’m proud to say I’m studying at an institution that encourages and actively supports all students, no matter their gender.

Sarah Feagles

More posts from Sarah Feagles

Daytime MBA, Class of 2014. Find out more about me...

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