Even though employers are crying out for female managers, few women are signing up for MBAs

When Irina Gorbarenko, deputy commercial director of a Russian airline, decided to study for an MBA at Lancaster University Management School, the question of how many women there would be on the course was scarcely on her mind. She liked the look of the programme, was concerned that there should be a good mix of nationalities, and was impressed by the ready way in which Lancaster responded to her inquiries. But once she began the MBA course, she was delighted to find that in her class of 40 full-time students, not only were there 13 different nationalities, but just over half the students were women.

Such statistics are highly unusual. This year, 53 per cent of students on Lancaster's full-time MBA programme are women - compared with a world average of only 27 per cent. Gorbarenko is emphatic about the positive effect this has had on the dynamics in her MBA class.

"Women in management have a different perspective from men, a different way of thinking. It is very important for top management to understand that women and men fill their roles differently," she says.

She cites as an example an MBA project in which she worked in a team of two men and two women. When it came to analysing the problems a particular company was facing, both women pointed to key cultural differences between company members.

"The men in our group said they would not have considered these kinds of cultural problems if we had not been there. But for us it was so logical: it wasn't female intuition, it was business female intuition."

Many business schools are increasingly worried about the need to recruit more women students. This is not simply a question of gender equity, but a pressing need to respond to the demands of a changing MBA market in which employers are crying out for more women. As Jeanette Purcell, the first woman to be chief executive of the Association of MBAs, puts it: "Women are typically regarded as having certain strengths: being well-organised and focused, having good communication skills and people skills. This is why business wants them."

Such strengths are critical in a changing business world. Thirty or 40 years ago, senior managers tended to work in a clear hierarchy, with people underneath them whom they told what to do, explains Professor Rick Crawley, head of external relations at Lancaster University Management School. Now, however, business networks are more complex and more global, and managers are working, at a distance, with people who don't necessarily report to them.

"Everything has to be achieved through persuasion, engagement, commitment to shared issues. Being a man saying these things is not straightforward territory - but these are skills which are more frequently found among women."

So if business wants women with MBAs, why are schools struggling to get them on board? Professor Sandra Dawson, director of the Judge Institute of Management Studies, Cambridge University (which this year achieved 34 per cent women on its full-time MBA course), believes that a critical obstacle for women has to do with age. UK schools tend to take MBA students in their early thirties, and require some years' work experience prior to the MBA.

"This often coincides with the time that women choose to have babies," she says. "There may be in their minds a view that if they are going to have time off, it will be more difficult to organise MBA study alongside the development of their career. In reality, this need not be a problem - but it is the perception."

Business schools can help women here, Professor Dawson believes, by encouraging women to talk about the vexed issues of work/life balance. "I do think access, to discussions about how one combines different parts of one's life is really important," she says. "Women need to see alternatives, to see role models."

Ngemnyi Azefor, in her early thirties and working as a Telecom product manager, put off starting a family to embark on a full-time MBA at Manchester Business School. Manchester has 28 per cent women on its full-time MBA course this year, compared with 19 per cent in 2003, and Azefor has been very active in formalising a student-run discussion group, called Women@MBS. "I think the biggest pressure on women in management is that the higher you go, the fewer women there are. Because I come from an engineering background, I had always been around men. So it has been very interesting for me, at MBS, to be able to talk to other women."

Women@MBS builds links with women alumni of the business school and hosts meetings with women students. It also holds "coaching lunches", in which prominent women are invited to talk about their careers and the choices they have made.

Initiatives such as this one may help to draw women into MBA courses. Jeanette Purcell believes that schools should use more discretion in the way that they recruit students. Women, for instance, can be deterred from senior management careers if they fail to achieve top scores in the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), which includes a high percentage of numerical and statistical material. Purcell argues that business schools should make it clear that a top score in GMAT is not all they are interested in and should consider these scores in a wider context. There is already anecdotal evidence, she says, that indicates that women perform better on MBA courses than their GMAT scores might have suggested.

Lancaster University Management School has already moved away from a complete reliance on GMAT.

"We need a broader vision of the skills necessary in senior management, a diversity of selection methods, and a broader understanding of the ways in which people can be successful in senior positions," says Professor Crawley. "Business schools need to make a commitment to changing things - but without being patronising to women. This is quite a tricky line."