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. She was recently reappointed for a second five-year term at Desautels starting July 1, 2020.
When Bajeux-Besnainou began her teaching career in the U.S., she was the only woman in the finance 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 completed my undergraduate studies in mathematics at École normale supérieure. It was very fundamental mathematics and I wanted to do something more applied. While I was interested in pure mathematics, it didn’t really fit well with my personality because I wanted my work to have a more direct impact. I became interested in economics and how mathematics could be applied to finance.
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 family. My children attended French school so they’re bilingual and we were able to stay connected with the French culture so that helped a lot.
It was a little bit 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 interesting and useful for me to understand how this mindset is applied in society in general. It’s a very practical and results-oriented society.
You’ve said that business schools need to work on improving diversity. Why is this important to you?
Diversity brings different perspectives to a given problem. At Desautels, we have a very high proportion of international students. In our undergraduate program, 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 contributes their own views 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?
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 MBA programs, less than 15 per cent of those business schools 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, business schools remain one of the more challenging places for women leaders.
Why do you think that is?
Business is still seen as a man’s world, I suppose, so that might be the main reason. But even with the progress that has been made over the last decade, it disheartens me to see a continued lower representation of women in finance, in particular, compared to other areas of business. If you look at the student population within our bachelors—the finance majors, concentrations and honours programs systematically have less 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 established a task force at the Faculty, made up of both male and female professors from our finance and organizational behaviour areas, to understand the challenges for the attraction, retention and advancement of female and minority students in finance. We also appointed one of our women finance professors as the academic director of the Honours in Investment Management program, and this seems to have helped. We’ve been able to increase the applications coming from women.
Why did you feel it was important?
It brings us back to diversity. I truly believe having more women adds value 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 include women on these decisions because, generally-speaking, they tend to have different investment perspectives. Women portfolio managers focus on the long term, take less risk, and have the potential to be very successful.
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; people all around the world know that McGill is a top-notch institution.
From personal experience, I know that the University has a very good reputation among French schools around the world, in the U.S., Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. When I was in Washington, my children attended a French school and as a parent, I heard so many good things about McGill; that it is a great institution in a dynamic, affordable and safe city.