Emma Haughton asks why women are in the minority
WITH SIX female winners out of seven in the Association of MBAs' Student of the Year competition, it's a good year for women MBAs - or so you might be led to believe.

Behind this landslide victory, however, there are signs that women MBAs are often outnumbered and overshadowed by their male colleagues. Figures from the Association of MBAs, for instance, show that on average, there are four men for every woman on an MBA course, while research in the UK and Australia reveals that completing a course can be much more of a challenge for women.

These figures haven't escaped the attention of business schools around the country. Although City University Business School can boast a better ratio - around a third of MBA students are women - the director of its day MBA programme, Carol Vielba, is still concerned about the number of women taking on the qualification generally.

"It is disappointing, given that men and women graduate from first degrees in roughly equal numbers. Why should so many fewer pursue further education in the form of an MBA? It should be much more even."

It's a vexed question to which, inevitably, there are many answers. Vielba has found, for instance, that women find it more difficult to secure corporate sponsorship than men.

"We draw on a fairly traditional set of industries in the city, with a fairly male dominated culture at the top. There are doubts about whether she will stay on, is she a worthwhile investment and so on." She also suspects that many women are more hesitant in putting themselves forward.

Nor is self-funding or a part-time course always an easier option for women. Many students take on MBAs in their late twenties or early thirties, when they have enough work experience and are planning the next stage of their career. Unfortunately this is also the time when many women are considering or embarking on a family. "When many women are doing a second stint at home and holding down a job, doing an MBA too is fairly demanding," said Ms Vielba.

The MBA also has something of an image problem for many women. When City carried out research five years ago, talking to people about whether or not they had done an MBA, and how relevant they thought they were, it found a strong feeling that MBAs were very masculine.

"They were associated with that image of aggressive young men with red braces screaming and shouting," says Vielba, "A lot of women simply don't see themselves that way." She also found that many women are much more interested, in the longer term, of working for themselves: "Whereas they think of an MBA as something for people working in a big corporation."

Ms Vielba and her colleagues have responded to the findings in an attempt to attract more women on to City's MBA courses. The school tries to make sure it always has a good balance of men and women tutors for interviewing and brought in consultants to help revise its brochure, reducing the number of pictures of men to make it feel more female friendly.

But it may take a lot more than revamping its literature for most schools to get more women on board. Yehuda Baruch, senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia's School of Management, and Anne Leeming, senior lecturer at City Business School, found in research conducted on 344 graduates from leading UK business schools that the teaching at many MBA courses actually discriminates against women. According to many of the women interviewed, lectures often have an almost exclusively male bias and sexist behaviour is widely tolerated by peers and staff.

Their conclusions are backed by those of Amanda Sinclair, professor of management in Melbourne Business School, who interviewed women who had undertaken MBAs in Australia and the UK. Women are often turned off by typical MBA teaching styles, where staff use heavy jargon, flout their academic authority and put down class members. They prefer collaborative and cooperative, rather than competitive, ways of working, she found, and an arena where they can express doubts and confusion or ask questions without having conclusions drawn about their capabilities.

She concluded that women MBAs often expend a lot of emotional and intellectual effort adjusting to the educational setting, in which their ways of contributing and interpreting the world are often misunderstood or judged unsuitable.

Her findings are no surprise to those involved. Judi Marshall, professor of organisational behaviour at Bath Business School, agrees that women can be turned off by courses which reflect the values of the business world.

"If a course has a particularly dominant group, the dynamics and language can be more thrusting, and the teaching more aggressive and competitive, and that doesn't suit everyone."

There are still many very good reasons why women should do an MBA. Career development still largely hinges on credibility and an MBA can give women enough to break through the glass ceiling.

According to Carol Vielba, if women need qualifications they should get the same ones as men. "An MBA does legitimise your position as a woman, but it's often more subtle than that.

`It does give you a great deal of confidence, as well as knowledge and skills. That can be a great boost for women."