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The Analysis: Achieving Gender Balance at Carlson

The credit for Carlson's success in promoting women to leadership positions belongs to Marilyn Nelson Carlson

How has Carlson achieved gender balance? A big part of the answer is Marilyn Carlson. She created a culture of meritocracy, where talent drives development and promotions. And surprise, surprise. When women are given an equal chance and the same preparatory experiences, they rise in equal numbers.

Yet we're losing a significant chunk of the talent pipeline. In a recent study of 17,000 college students by Linda Sax of the University of California at Los Angeles, women are less confident than men in their academic abilities despite the fact that they earn better grades. The gap widens during college and leads them to different career choices. Top MBA programs have an average of only 30% women. The "Harvard and Beyond Project" notes that among women with two children, 60% of the medical doctors and 49% of the lawyers are still employed full-time 15 years after they graduate, compared with just 40% of the MBAs. The economic losses after an employment gap are far greater for female MBAs, and they're less likely to return to the labor force.

It's critical that companies offer women and men a degree of work flexibility around their family's life stages without penalty for taking advantage of these policies. But we need to reach into the pipeline much earlier. At UCLA Anderson School of Management, MBA students serve as mentors to underrepresented and female high school students to expose them to business careers and to build their self-confidence. And in a leadership course geared to women, participants observe different career shapes on the road to leadership, and that they can ramp up and down without getting permanently derailed, provided they choose the right employer.

That's in everyone's vital interest. Just ask Marilyn Carlson.

Judy Olian is dean of the UCLA Anderson School of Management and is the John E. Anderson Chair in Management.

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