For the last few years, the J. Mack Robinson College of Business has been running a class called WomenLead at Georgia State University. From small beginnings, with fewer than 30 students, the course has been growing and growing, and it shows no sign of stopping.
WomenLead was created when an Atlanta-based angel investor contacted the Robinson College and said she was interested in addressing issues of gender parity. The school’s dean held a town hall meeting, attended by around 20 people, after which business law professor Nancy Mansfield was given the green light to design a new program.
The result was a for-credit class open to any undergraduate at Georgia State that aims to inspire female students to achieve business leadership roles, trains them in self-efficacy and self-awareness, and provides networking opportunities.
“I really wanted to focus on undergraduates,” Mansfield says. “There are a lot of programs for MBA students, and many graduate and work for a few years before coming back to do their MBA, so they’re already thinking about what they want, and what opportunities there are. But on this big urban campus, I felt a need for undergraduates to join the conversation about women in the workforce, to really feel like they can be anyone they want to be.”
A THREE-PRONGED PROGRAM
Before becoming program director of WomenLead, Mansfield was a tenured professor teaching law at the business school. “So I thought, ‘If we’re going to do a program like this I really want it to resonate with the business community,’” she says. “So we made contact with two graduates from Georgia State, who had led leadership programs and women’s programs at Coca Cola. Using them as a resource, we came up with curriculum ideas, and built the program.”
The program has three main pillars. The first is self-awareness and self-efficacy. “We spend some time telling stories and talking about how you can use those stories as you look for jobs,” Mansfield says. “This provides the foundation for the course.” From there, students learn about the history of women in the workforce, and read up on current gender equality issues. That includes studying recent McKinsey Reports on the gender gap, and reading books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.
“We discuss how women are now entering the workforce in greater numbers than ever before, but somewhere along the way they get passed over, or they get stuck, or they drop out, so that when you get to the top, only 17% of C-Suite executives are women, and for women of color it’s only 4%,” Mansfield says. “Maybe we’re breaking the glass ceiling, but maybe there’s a sticky floor. So what will it take to keep pushing through this pipeline?”
The third prong of the program is engagement opportunities with professionals in the Atlanta business community. The course features speakers, networking events and opportunities, and site visits to local companies. “There’s a lot of research that talks about the importance of role models,” Mansfield says. “We took the inaugural class on a corporate visit to Coca Cola, and there were three women and a man who spoke, and they all said they had been first-generation college students. Many of the students here are first-generation, and this had a tremendous impact on them, to say, ‘I can identify with that marketing director, and I want to come here and do that.’”
SHARING THE JOURNEY
WomenLead’s inaugural class in spring 2015 had just under 30 students. Though there are notices and information sessions, Mansfield says, students find out about the general elective course largely through word of mouth.
Word spread quickly. A second WomenLead section was added in fall 2015, and in spring 2016, a third section — this time for women in science — joined the curriculum. Now, Mansfield says, Robinson expects to need a fourth section next fall.
“This was forging a new area for me, professionally,” Mansfield says. “But I was in the first wave of feminism — I went to college in the ’70s, and then went to law school. I have very much lived the changes for women over the past 35 years. I really felt a calling to share that journey with this generation of college students.”