New push for women MBAs

Peter Brown on an initiative aiming to break down boardroom barriers

The low proportion of women taking MBA courses – around 30 per cent globally – has been a source of concern for many years. There are signs, however, of change in the wind.

Record numbers of women – 43 per cent of the total – took the Graduate Management Admission Test (Gmat) last year. And a recent survey from the Association of Business Schools (Amba) showed an increase of women MBAs moving into strategy and planning, marketing and sales, and research and finance.

More women are prepared to study internationally, and European schools – with their diverse classrooms – are increasingly anxious to attract them. Women coming from China to study at London Business School (LBS) now outnumber men, though they come mostly to do a pre-experience Masters programme.

The Forté Foundation is an American not-for-profit foundation aimed at launching women into successful careers through access to education. It was recently commissioned by LBS to interview North American women enrolled in MBA programmes at leading European schools. Over 90 per cent of respondents said it was the diversity of the student classmates that attracted them.

For such women, operating internationally in what is still a male world, networking is vital, and a variety of organisations have sprung up to help women create contacts.

"If you want to get noticed by CEOs of organisations, you need to have two things: international experience, which speaks to your network and your ability to operate globally, and profit-and-loss experience," says Wendy Alexander, a former Scottish MP who now serves as the associate dean for degree programmes and career services at London Business School.

If the Forté Foundation caters for women considering an MBA, at the other end there are also organisations such as Women on Boards, which helps women position themselves for board roles. In the middle, however, was a gap for a networking organisation for women as they finish their MBAs and go back into the professional world.

Into this space has stepped MBA Women International, an American not-for-profit group. With around 5,000 members, the organisation already has more than 70 collegiate chapters in schools and 20 professional chapters in American cities. London is the chosen destination for the first chapter outside the US.

Leading the initiative is Crystal Wu (pictured above right), who works in analytics for travel company Expedia, and was relocated to London from Seattle last June. Her MBA came from the Michael G Foster School of Business at the University of Washington.

"An MBA course is very short – one or two years," says Wu, "and once women have gone through it there isn't any support network. But in fact you keep developing through your lifetime.

"MBA Women International is focused mainly on professional development, educational opportunities, networking and collaborating for women with MBAs or other like-minded women. This is about helping women to develop the skills they need. That might be public speaking, negotiation skills, lobbying, or just becoming familiar with 'business speak'."

Helping Wu is Lena Benjamin, whose MBA was from Westminster Business School, where the two met recently to form a launch team for the project, due to start next year.

The aim is that chapters in individual business schools will be joined by women coming towards the end of their MBAs, leading eventually to a London-wide professional chapter, run by volunteers. At that stage members will have access to a wide variety of businesses and organisations.

"I was working in male-dominated industries – engineering consultancy, electrical engineering and insurance," says Benjamin, who runs a business in customer and employee development training. "The very tops of so many organisations are heavily male-dominated. We need women to be developed at the right stage so there's a steady flow up to the board."

Benjamin has personal experience of being pigeonholed – being asked to wear a particular top to client meetings, for example. As a black woman she ticked all the boxes in the companies she was with, but says that when it comes to promotion to more senior levels, the barriers are still there.

Gradually, she acknowledges, things are changing. "But it's still quite slow," Benjamin says, "and we haven't got the time for it to be slow. Globally we cannot sustain business without advancing women. That's my mantra."

Amba welcomes the initiative. "We support other organisations such as MBA Women International that help MBAs to grow personally and professionally," says chief operating officer Vanessa Harwood-Whitcher.

Alexander, too, is lending her support. "It's very encouraging to see this happening," she says. "There's certainly a gap which this organisation will help to fill."