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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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.