In conversation with Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management

March 2, 2020  —  Uncategorized
Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou has been Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management since September 2015Christian Fleury

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou was appointed Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management in September 2015 after having worked as a professor at George Washington University’s School of Business for 21 years.

When Bajeux-Besnainou began her teaching career in the U.S., she was the only woman in her department. While that situation is improving, she says there still is a lot of room for improvement – especially in business schools. Bajeux-Besnainou sat down with the Reporter do discuss why diversity benefits everyone.

After finishing your undergraduate studies in mathematics, you became interested in finance. What made you transition towards the business world?

I did my undergraduate studies in mathematics at École Normale Supérieure. It was very fundamental mathematics and I wanted to do something more applied. At the time, applied mathematics was seen as something very original, but I became interested in economics and how mathematics could be applied to finance. I guess I was interested in pure mathematics, but it didn’t really fit well with my personality because I like what I do to have a more direct impact.

You were born and educated in France but worked in the U.S. for over 20 years. Was that challenging for you?

It was challenging, of course, because I was suddenly immersed in a different culture. In my professional environment, I didn’t have the chance to speak French, but luckily, I was able to do so at home with my husband and kids. They went to a French school so they’re bilingual and we were able to stay connected with the French culture so that helped a lot.

It was even quite challenging to teach in the U.S. because the approach is quite different than it is in France where teaching is theoretical; you start with a theorem, then a proof and then you give examples. In the U.S., you pretty much need to reverse that; start with examples, then build a theorem from there and the proof is pretty much optional. It was quite interesting and useful for me to understand how this mindset is applied in society in general. It’s a very practical and result-oriented society.

You’ve said that business schools need to work on improving diversity. Why is this important to you?

Diversity brings different perspectives on a given problem. At Desautels, we have a very high proportion of international students. In our undergraduate programs, we have about 40 per cent of students who are from abroad and when it comes to our MBA or other specialized Master’s programs, it’s close to 70 per cent.

So, we’re very international and everyone benefits from this because it brings new dimensions to the student experience in the classroom. It’s very important when trying to solve complex business problems because everyone brings in their own culture, view of the world and this leads to creative solutions.

To what extent do women need to be better represented in business schools if we’re to improve diversity?

I wish we wouldn’t need to have these conversations today, but unfortunately, it’s something we still need to talk about.

When I started my career in the U.S., I was in a department with no women at all. I was the only one and my other 16 or 17 colleagues were all men. When I left to come to McGill, things were a bit better. But progress is slow because, generally speaking, women still have to fight for their place in business schools.

You were the first woman to be appointed Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management in 2015. Do you believe this is a sign that things are changing for the best?

If you look at the Financial Times’ ranking of the world’s 100 top business schools, less than 15 per cent are headed by women and McGill is one of them. Today, 8 of the 14 deans at McGill are women, so it says a lot about the University’s leadership in this regard and that’s pretty exciting. That being said, a business school remains one of the more challenging places for women to be.

Why do you think that is?

I’m not sure… business is still seen as a man’s world, I suppose, so that might be the main reason. Finance is also an area where it’s a little challenging in terms of gender balance and we actually have some evidence to show this. If you look at the student population within our Bachelor’s degree, the Finance majors, concentrations and Honours programs systematically have very few women.

What can be done to reverse this trend?

Since my appointment as Dean, we’ve been working at the student level to try and change this trend and the perception that finance is for men. I’ve established a task force to actually try and figure out how to better approach this.

One of the things we did was to have a woman as the director of the Honours program, one of our finance professors, and this seems to have helped. In past years, hardly any women submitted applications to the Joint Honours in Economics & Finance program, but this year, we’ve been able to reverse that, so things seem to be getting a bit better.

Why did you feel it was important?

It brings us back to diversity. I truly believe having more women adds something to the profession. Again, it’s about attacking problems from different angles and bringing in different perspectives.

For example, when you’re thinking about investment, it’s important to bring in women on these decisions because they really do have different investment perspectives that tend to be focused on a longer term, a little more risk averse and this is very complimentary to a male approach.

McGill has a significant number of international students. What do you think attracts them to the University?

I really think it has to do with the quality of the education here and the reputation that comes with it. For example, Desautels’ MBA program has, for the third straight year, landed a spot in the Financial Times Global MBA rankings, so I think people all around the world know that McGill is a top-notch institution.

For example, the University has a very good reputation in French schools around the world – the U.S., Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. And I know that for a fact because when I was in Washington, my children attended a French school and as a parent, I heard so many good things about McGill; a great, affordable institution in a dynamic and safe city.

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