For the past 30 years, business schools have been bemoaning a lack of women on their MBAs. And progress has been made – from virtually none during the Eighties, there are now three women for every seven men on an MBA course worldwide. But numbers seem to have reached a plateau in the past few years, with MBAs lagging behind the likes of law and medical school, and especially undergraduate business degrees, which attract roughly the same numbers of men and women.
"Despite all the talk, the culture of business schools hasn't changed," says Professor Susan Vinnicombe, director of the International Centre for Women Leaders at Cranfield University School of Management. "I've heard women MBA students say: 'This course is more macho than the business world I've come from'."
With a few exceptions, MBAs are taught mostly by men, which doesn't help redress the perception, she says. This has been noticed by Baya Tuvshintugs, finalist for The Independent MBA student of the year award, who studied at the ENPC School of International Management and who plans to start a diabetes clinic in her native Mongolia. "I hope to inspire women to study business and become entrepreneurs. But just one of my 26 professors on the course was a woman. My role models from the MBA world have all been men." Even though she and many other women MBA students declare that, once embarked on a course, they feel supported and encouraged, women just don't apply in equal numbers.
Timing is the most obvious reason. Most applicants come forward after several years of experience in their late twenties and early thirties – often a time when many women are thinking of starting a family or already have young children and are questioning their work-life balance.
"We have had a member of staff invigilate on an antenatal ward," says Anne Woodhead, director of executive MBAs at Durham Business School. "A [pregnant] student picked up her exam papers and completed them while she was on the ward. But that's certainly not the norm." Weekend assignments and residential courses pile on the pressure.
Women are often put off by the expense, with courses at prestigious accredited schools costing upwards of £25,000. Women tend to be more circumspect about taking the financial plunge, say course directors.
Anecdotally, course directors say women, many of whom come from human resources, humanities and arts backgrounds, fear they aren't numerate enough to take part. "Women may lack confidence, but the figures aren't as bad as they believe," says Woodhead, who herself comes from a maths background. "Women will manage it, because they are generally conscientious and struggle through."
Business schools point out they offer coaching and study support in all areas of the course. "It's in everyone's interest to have as broad a range of students as possible. There's no need to be afraid if you don't have experience of finance," says Mark Stoddard, the accreditation projects manager at the Association of MBAs (Amba).
Business schools defend themselves against accusations they aren't making progress in balancing the numbers. Some believe the 30/70 per cent split is as good as it will get, and none wants to operate a quota.
"Women don't come as a package, so they don't all need the same thing. If they consistently asked for something specific, we'd offer it," says Woodhead. "All support is student-focused."
While the numbers of people applying for MBAs has shot up since the recession, the proportion of women applying hasn't increased. However, Woodhead believes the downturn may yet bring a rise in women, particularly as companies have been sponsoring more employees during quiet times in the hope they will retain good staff. "This might attract women who haven't previously considered it," she says.
Some schools offer financial aid targeted at women; the likes of Cranfield offer one or two female scholarships, and many, such as Lancaster, which offers what's considered a reasonably female-friendly MBA, might offer one for 2011. But critics say such awards are too few and far between to have an impact.
"Women more than anything want flexibility," says Woodhead; juggling personal and professional demands is vital. This year, Durham is letting part-time MBA students complete two of its five modules off-campus. Take-up has been good. "Most programmes advertise themselves as flexible, with full and part-time courses, and there are more in development," says Stoddard. Indeed, the Open University, one of the biggest providers of MBAs in the UK, has a higher proportion of women than most other schools. Several courses offer bespoke careers coaching, which providers believe is crucial to attract and retain women. "We don't sit around planning how to positively discriminate," says Andrew Miles at Birmingham Business School, which has a higher-than-average number of women. "We are good at the 'personal touch', offering a lot of individual support: we think this does attract women applicants."
One business school has taken support one step further by creating a women's network. ESCP Europe has for the past year and a half organised women's meetings across its European campuses. "Who better than a woman to tell other women it's possible?" says Ines Khedir, MBA programme manager. "Women like to meet people who understand what they are going through and who know how to deal with it."
As debate rages as to whether business school graduates share responsibility for the financial crisis, Vinnicombe hopes that a turning tide of corporate responsibility will appeal to women. Cranfield and other UK institutions have signed up to the Principles for Responsible Management Education, a UN-backedinitiative which promotes responsible business education. "It will help to temper the macho culture and bring change over time," she says.
'My course had a weekend format: the flexibility was really important'
Karen Wilkinson-Bell, regional director – north-east at Business in the Community, finished an executive (part-time) MBA at Durham University in 2005. While studying, she continued to work as chief officer of Relate north-east.
"The busier you get, the more you realise you can do. It wasn't until I had two small children (then aged three and five) and a full-time job that I thought I ought to go for an MBA – I'd got a scholarship to do it before, but I put it off, thinking I was too busy. Children make you more efficient.
My course had a weekend format: the flexibility was really important. My husband went to being a full-time dad at weekends, learning how to work the washing machine – I couldn't have done it without his full support. It changed the dynamic of our family for the better.
During my MBA, I remember feeling as if I'd got a second wind in my career. Before I had my first child, I felt I'd peaked. But the course gave me a new perspective: I felt ready to start all over again.
There is a difference between perception and practicalities. An MBA isn't rocket science, but it has a lot more relevance in your late thirties.
If we will all be working longer, it makes sense to do it later in our careers. It gives you an inner confidence in a macho business world. And it's certainly easier than childbirth.