Recruiting more women starts by tackling misconceptions about business careers

Young Women in Business Conference

The Young Women in Business Conference is one way Iowa State's College of Business is working to recruit more female students. (Larger image) Photo courtesy: College of Business

AMES, Iowa – Emily Kohnke remembers how it felt to be the only woman in a class of 50 men, but she didn’t let it stop her from pursuing a career in supply chain management. Now, as an assistant professor in Iowa State University’s College of Business, Kohnke and her female colleagues are working to recruit more female students and break down some of the gender barriers.

Kohnke and Kayla Sander, a senior lecturer of accounting, know the greatest challenge is often simply overcoming the misperceptions young women have about a career in business. As organizers of the college’s Young Women in Business conference, they answer a lot of questions about the available fields of study, such as supply chain management or management information systems.

“Unfortunately, these two majors are often not considered at all because people don’t realize they exist or they are completely misunderstood,” Kohnke said. “We’re working to educate young women about the opportunities in these fields. Women are well equipped personality-wise and thought process-wise to be very successful in either supply chain or information systems.”  

The Young Women in Business conference, now in its fifth year, is open to high school students, parents, teachers and guidance counselors. Organizers opened the conference to parents and teachers after learning they too have many of the same questions about business as students. Kohnke and Sander said students who pursue a career in business often do so because of the influence of a parent or friend.  

“There are a lot of opportunities in business today that didn’t exist when many parents and guidance counselors were in school. The conference really helps educate them on the opportunities available for today’s students,” said Sander, who helped develop and launch the first conference five years ago.

The opportunities just within the supply chain field can range from purchasing supplies and equipment that a company needs to operate; managing operations for a hospital or production schedules for a manufacturing plant; as well as handling the logistics of getting a product from the factory to a retail store thousands of miles away.

This year’s Young Women in Business conference runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on October 20, at the Gerdin Business Building on campus. Registration is just $15 and more information can be found here.

Going beyond recruitment

More female students are enrolling in Iowa State’s College of Business. From 2011 to 2014, the percentage of women has held steady at around 35 percent, but the numbers have increased from 1,175 women to 1,386 during that four-year timeframe.  

The conference is just one initiative to help recruit female students to ISU’s College of Business. Sander, who serves as adviser for the Collegiate Women in Business club, said providing support and mentors to women once they come to campus is just as important. Students can better see themselves in a career when they have the chance to meet and network with successful women in that field. Sander said they also discuss issues that women may face in the workplace to create awareness and help them prepare to handle certain situations.   

“We want to strike a balance as we work to promote and encourage women in business,” Sander said. “We want to make them aware of certain issues so they don’t fall into that trap, but at the same time we don’t want to give the impression that women are doing something wrong.”

Sander and Kohnke said women who recognize and overcome these challenges advance more quickly in their career. They both credit the “Lean In” movement started by Sheryl Sandberg for generating awareness and giving women confidence to pursue career goals.   

“As women we need to be aware of how our differences can hold us back,” Kohnke said. “However, some of the differences that women bring to the workforce and their skills, such as listening, attention to detail and multitasking – all these things that women tend to do better than men – add a fantastic richness to the workplace.”