In Conversation with Dr. Alnoor Bhimani, Hon. Dean of the Suleman Dawood School of Business (SDSB), LUMS

The Suleman Dawood School of Business (SDSB) is the first business school in the world to extend a 50 percent tuition waiver to any woman accepted to its graduate programs.

The Women’s Scholarship at SDSB brings within reach women’s access to higher business education of the highest standing in the country, enabling the advancement of women in the workforce with extensive attendant social impact.

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the world’s largest business education accreditor whose aim is to foster engagement, accelerate innovation, and amplify impact in business education, has highlighted SDBS’s award for women.

It has featured SDSB in its Innovations That Inspire member 2022 spotlight program. SDSB is one of the 24 business schools worldwide to receive this honorable recognition for its Women’s Scholarship initiative this year.

Innovations That Inspire recognizes several AACSB member schools each year that are drivers of change, demonstrating innovative ways to address challenges and opportunities that have a positive societal impact.

This year, schools were featured based on their innovative approaches to enhancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB), a key focus of the AACSB’s accreditation standards.

To discuss this major recognition, we engaged with Dr. Alnoor Bhimani, the Honorary Dean of Suleman Dawood School of Business (SDSB) at LUMS to find out more. The following are the excerpts from our conversation.

How do you think the ‘women scholarship initiative’ at SDSB will reduce gender inequity in the workplace and society?

One of the biggest untapped resources in Pakistan is its massive female population. Almost half of the country’s population of 229 million are women but the country ranked 153rd out of 156 nations in the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report.

This indicates that there remains a huge task ahead to address gender inequities in Pakistan. The country’s workforce is diminished by the non-inclusion of women in workplaces. No society can sustain itself equitably where the majority of women are denied the opportunity to engage in economic activities and to play a full socially participative role.

In large part, the lack of educational possibilities negates women’s inclusion in the socio-economic mainstream. In Pakistan, women have a literacy rate that is less than half that of men, which partially explains why women make up only a quarter of the workforce.

In some of our programs at SDSB, we had about a 5% female presence 3 years ago. Today with the 50% women scholarship we are seeing some of our masters’ degrees having over 70% women and the overall average on all our graduate programs is rapidly moving toward 40%.

This signals that there can be active participation of women in business programs if obstacles are removed.  As more women are seen in positions of responsibility and leadership, we will witness a sea-change in attitudes recognizing their presence and capacity to contribute to growth however we define growth.

Over time, as women at work are celebrated, societal acceptance of their roles in the workforce will become normalized.

Women who are able to actively engage in gainful employment, become exemplars of what they can achieve, they also become more independent, and their economic empowerment can lead to lowered social tensions and more balanced cultures of inclusion and equity with wider societal benefits.

Do you see this model bringing a rise in the number of female students that go to universities? What more can be explored to complement this targeted increase in their enrolment percentage?

We are certainly witnessing a rise in female applicants to graduate university programs. SDSB’s graduate programs currently comprise between 20 and 70 percent women.

This is a true testament to SDSB’s capacity to make headway in closing the prevalent gender gap in the country. Our challenge is that the 50 percent Women Scholarship is so innovative and an outlier from scholarships other universities offer that it must be extensively publicized.

Awareness of the scholarship is gaining traction, but this is slow to take hold. Additionally, we need to ensure that women are aware of the scholarship, and see themselves as having the confidence to apply to LUMS.

The recognition that women have the intellectual wherewithal and the self-assurance to be part of the business world of work at the highest levels is crucial.

This may take time but, just as a snowball becomes bigger, we will see more and more women becoming sensitized to their own potential by seeing others tread business leadership paths and they too will apply to be admitted into good business programs in the future.

What policy proposals would you put forward to ensure rising women’s participation in civil and corporate sectors?

It is important for women to receive sound advice on the educational choices available to them.  Equally, in hiring practices, it is essential that women are not discriminated against. Initiatives and protocols have to be observed where merit trumps everything else.

Those business organizations that recognize that women bring powerful perspectives that reside outside’ groupthink’ that is largely male derived, will grow in numbers!

Once organizational goals are seen to be better achieved via greater labor participation by women, then attitudes will change. But often, to hasten this, policies and processes must be put into effect so that attitudinal changes are triggered.

Ultimately, for an economy to grow, gender sensitivity must prevail and once this takes place, societal growth for all ensues.

At SDSB, important initiatives are operationalized to take account of essential changes that speak to enhancing gender equity.  The School seeks to continuously uncover steps that aid women’s participation in the student body, administrative posts, and faculty hiring and promotions.

This will remain an uppermost objective for SDSB.

Will this scholarship enable more women to get better employment opportunities?

Without a doubt, yes. With more women students joining conversations in classrooms, more insights are articulated. Women speak the truth from well-informed places.

They observe and see and express opinions on issues and possibilities that would otherwise lay dormant. As a result of their experiences and their intelligence and training, they can fast-track growth and agility in organizations with important payoffs both financial and otherwise.

Organizations and employers, that do not encourage female applicants to provide them with equal opportunities, salary packages, and other benefits, will suffer.

They will remain bystanders looking at more avant-garde enterprises surpassing them in growth, prosperity, and wellbeing.

We have seen that the upper management in the corporate world is always male dominant, how can a shift in that dominancy be created for women? How will such scholarships by LUMS and other universities help bring that shift?

It is a fact that the percentage of women in senior positions is relatively small, but this can improve if female applicants make informed decisions, and pursue professional advancement in the face of challenges. As they obtain solid business degrees, women will be able to demonstrate their strengths for C-suite positions.

Inequities take time to overcome but persistence is a must and already, a positive trend is palpable and will continue. This trend is not just a Pakistani phenomenon, it is a global one. In time, we will see much-enhanced gender equity in upper management layers.

What impact is this scholarship likely to have on other institutions in ensuring measures on the same lines are adopted at other universities in Pakistan?

It is hoped that other higher learning institutions will replicate the 50 percent women’s scholarship model in effect at SDSB. Universities are ultimately about societal betterment.

The road ahead for women can be much brighter and higher educational institutions have a key responsibility in enabling this.

Here’s hoping that other educational institutions will also make an effort to take action, and work on reforms that are necessary for aiding women which in turn will benefit all.