Women are taking specialist business courses earlier to close the gender pay gap, says James Morrison

If there's one success story of which City University's Cass Business School ( www.cass.city.ac.uk) is especially proud, it's the number of women enrolling on its Masters programmes.

Of the 1,200 students reading one of the 22 options in the school's postgraduate portfolio, 38 per cent are women. On its new MSc in management, the split is around 50/50, a figure 20 per cent higher than the national average.

Director of programmes Susan Roth attributes Cass's popularity to the specialist focus of its Masters options, which range from an MA in property valuation and law to an MSc in pensions. She says that ambitious women are realising that specialising is the surest route to a successful career in a sphere once regarded as a male preserve.

"The specialist nature of our courses helps women get the jobs they want," she explains. The more "niche" that specialism, the greater their chances of closing the gender pay gap, an issue highlighted by last month's report from the Women and Work Commission showing that British men earn, on average, 17 per cent more than their female colleagues.

Roth adds that a growing number of women enrolling for Masters at Cass are doing so straight after their first degrees. Mindful of the difficult work-life- balance choices that they face in their thirties, women are opting for four years of study at the outset, rather than returning to university to specialise after a few years in professional practice.

Roth, who joined Cass last August from New York's Columbia Business School, says this reflects a trend that emerged in America. "More women are choosing postgraduate studies earlier on, realising they may want to have children later," she says.

Such considerations don't only apply to British women. Courses such as the school's new management MSc (to be ranked for the first time next year) are proving popular with female graduates from the Far East, where workplace competition is even more intense.

Shamanth Paramasibam, 24, gained a 2.1 in engineering in Malaysia before applying for Cass's MSc in finance. "I asked myself what skills I had that would be useful in banking. Analytical skills gained from my engineering degree were an asset, but I lacked financial knowledge," she says.

Based in a purpose-built £50m block on the edge of the City of London, Cass enjoys an outstanding global reputation. Its facilities include a Bloomberg-sponsored dealing room, and in 2001 it scored 23 out of 24 for national teaching excellence. Ninety per cent of its students find jobs within three months of graduating. Alumni include Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of easyJet, who graduated with an MSc in shipping trade and economics.

For those seeking a less specialist Masters option, the internationally respected Warwick Business School ( www.wbs.ac.uk) launches a new MSc this October designed to plug a gap in the market for a general management-oriented postgraduate degree. Unlike the centre's revered MBA, for which three years' work in a related field is required, the one-year MSc in management is aimed at graduates in non-business-related disciplines, and those who have embarked on careers as managers but are only a year or two into their jobs.

Dr Michael Shulver, academic director of the new programme, says it is being introduced in response to requests he has received from undergraduates in subjects such as engineering and philosophy who want to take management modules while reading for first degrees.

"We won't be targeting someone who's done a degree in accounting," he explains. "It's for people who have done their mind-expanding thing in their first degrees and now want to learn something practical.

"We're also aiming it at people who are already effective managers, but just need that extra edge. Whatever kind of organisation they work for, it'll equip them with more of the vernacular."

The programme is not for the faint-hearted, however. Dr Shulver has devised a central "spine module" that will cover, in just 12 months, all the elements that he considers essential to an understanding of how to maximise corporate performance.