Lessons on the way to the top

A new course on leadership at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, will give more than a dozen of its female MBA students a taste of what it feels like to be at the top – the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, that is. 

This September, Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to conquer Mount Everest, will coach 14 students up Africa’s highest mountain. In coursework before and after the expedition, students will reflect on specific challenges that women face climbing the corporate ladder.

The mountain, says Dianne Bevelander, vice-dean of post-experience programmes and the designer of the course, is a metaphor for business. “As in business, these women will have to navigate a changing landscape … climbing is tough, things can change quickly, people must work as a team, take risks and support one another. The person you may not like may be carrying your bag tomorrow.”

Women comprise less than 10 per cent of boards in the EU – an issue this blog has tackled extensively. “At a certain level, female leaders seem to disappear,” says Bevelander. “Once women reach mid-level management, they do not tend to climb higher up the corporate ladder. Some women reach the top and don’t like what they find, so rather than enduring a hostile environment where they feel their voice is not heard, women choose to leave and pursue other options.”

The idea for the class came out of research Bevelander conducted on how female MBA students networked with their classmates at business school.

“I looked at who they did class projects with, and who they socialised with outside the classroom,” she says. “It turns out that on an emotional or task-orientated level, women gravitated towards [connecting with] other women. But when I asked them who they would want on their team if they were to be involved in a risky project, women turned to men.”

She came up with the notion of climbing Kilimanjaro to “show them how they can rely on and learn to trust each other. My dream is that women will realise they can successfully confront any adversity they may face. My question for these women is, ‘Who do you want to be when you come down?’”

Bevelander plans to follow the students for three years after the climb and track whether they are still in contact and whether they have helped and mentored each other.

“This climb is about women empowering other women,” she says. “If you want change, you can’t do it with just one woman at the top. You need many more.”


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