Most Gen Z girls and women lack a key success lesson in their education

Key Points
  • Only 22 percent of students in business venture competitions are female, according to a new study from Girls With Impact.
  • When women do compete as founders or CEOs, their teams rank highly in business competitions.
  • More female students need to be exposed to competition at earlier ages to take advantage of future career opportunities.

There's long been Girls Scouts and sports, but too many young women aren't exposed to teamwork and competition at an early age, and that will hurt them as they seek jobs in a shifting workplace. The problem is not limited to girls in middle and high school. A new study of female business students shows that women don't opt into what is being judged by their own professors and corporate hiring managers as the most important part of B-school education: not books, but competitions.

Women represented just 22 percent of students participating in venture competitions, but when they do compete, female students succeed. Of the ranking teams (first, second and third place) in competitions, 51 percent had a woman founder and 32 percent had a woman CEO.

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The study from Girls with Impact included data on six years of college venture competitions in which there were 1,454 participants and 535 teams comprised of student from freshman to Ph.D level. across three universities — University of Connecticut, UCLA and Rice University.

Data from the universities on the types of courses that female students take backs up the gender gap in business competitions. Women have lower participation rates in real-world business courses versus theoretical classes. Even though the business school population is roughly equal men and women, when entrepreneurship classes are positioned as being about "real-world business creation," female student participation drops to as low as 5 percent (versus 18 percent for all entrepreneurship courses).

As 20th century operational jobs are taken over by computers and artificial intelligence, "The main function of the human worker going forward is to be entrepreneurial, to be innovative," said George Brooks, Americas Leader, People Advisory Services at EY. "Anything early on that requires you to be competitive has a direct correlation to developing swagger," Brooks said. "When I look at the key new attributes, entrepreneurship and resilience carry over to the business world."

But he said it is clear from the low participation rates in business competitions among women that girls need to be encouraged. "They need someone to be their role models and give them a nudge," Brooks said, especially since the results show that when women do compete they outperform men.

"It is a missed opportunity," said Jennifer Openshaw, CEO of Girls With Impact.

Openshaw said that while the study data does not result in firm conclusions about the reasons behind the gender gap in education choices, one theory is that female students feel a greater lack of confidence about courses and competitions branded as "real-world." They may perceive this as being a more male-dominated arena or avoid because they associate it with higher risk and feel they are more likely to fail, even though the data shows this not to be the case.

Recent venture capital firms founded specifically to invest in female-run start-ups also have shown that there is no shortage of women starting businesses: one venture capital firm said it has reviewed more than 4,000 companies founded by women since it started investing.

When girls do compete, there is a direct correlation to confidence gains. "Girls executing on business plans, the confidence is doubling, because the learning is not just theoretical, it is real," Openshaw said. "Early exposure changes the mindset, and it is great if it happens in high school, but needs to happen even earlier."

She also noted that while STEM educational programs receive needed focus, entrepreneurship is another "E" to insert in the acronym that will be key for the next generation of women leaders. "By definition, entrepreneurship is problem solving, and businesses have migrated to that mentality because they have to," Openshaw said.

HR is looking for more than good grades

David Noble, director of the Peter J. Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at UConn, said a focus on real-world experience is critical at a time of significant changes for MBA programs that have resulted from declining interest in traditional full-time, two-year degree enrollment. Students, whether male or female, should no longer assume that an MBA is about "checking off boxes and will pay out in X number of years and months and put them on the partnership track," Noble said. Rather, they should go to business school to become better at thinking and acting like entrepreneurs.

"How do you create more revenue streams is the big question at an EY or PWC or McKinsey now versus the old days of 'How do you perform audit more efficiently," Noble said. "The equation has changed. Stable, repeatable, scalable sort of operation-types jobs are giving way to entrepreneurial, opportunity seeking-type employees."

The UConn entrepreneurship expert said MBA students or even engineering students who believe getting top grades at a top school will be differentiator are setting themselves up for disappointment. At UConn, one of his biggest goals is attempting to involve students far beyond the business school in competitions, including those with liberal arts backgrounds who need to be trained on how to succeed in the future workplace.

"What HR departments tell me is 'We are looking for people who are doing things.' A Github page, a hackathon competition, not necessarily winning competitions or starting companies and raising money, it is more about the activity, that they are curious and there are tangible things HR can see on a resume that show that. It comes up at every corporate meeting," Noble said. "All students ... middle school, high school ... minority, liberal arts ... need these skills. And early intervention is hugely positive."