Tapping at the glass ceiling: More women are studying MBAs - but there is still room for improvement

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The Independent Online

There's good news and bad news when it comes to women and MBAs. The good news is that most business schools are now seeing more women wanting to study for the high-flying business qualification. The bad news is that the increase comes from a stubbornly low base.

This imbalance starts early: many women simply don't even consider doing an MBA.

"One of the reasons there are not more women in business school is to do with the applicant pool," explains Dawna Clarke, director of admissions at Tuck School of Business, in Dartmouth, in the United States, where outreach activities to tell would-be applicants about the benefits of the Tuck MBA have managed to up the female head-count from 25 per cent in the class of 2006, to 33 per cent in the class of 2008. "It's not like we're getting 50 per cent female applications."

A wide range of considerations deter women from applying to business school. MBA student. Svetlana Novoseltseva, a 30-year-old former investment banker who is studying at Judge Business School, in Cambridge, sums it up neatly. "A lot of my friends are very bright with a lot of potential but they won't consider doing an MBA because they say it's too much money, they're not convinced about the career impact and they feel they're at a stage where they should be thinking about starting families rather than focusing on their careers."

The costs of an MBA are certainly daunting, and it is not just the upfront price-tag. Would-be students also have to factor in living costs and the cost of stepping off the career ladder. This is an issue that weighs on both men and women but research shows that women tend to be more cautious when it comes to taking financial risks. Business schools are trying to overcome this hesitancy by providing better information about financial aid, targeting scholarships and promoting the long term rewards of an MBA.

But it is even harder for women to square the family issue. The average age of students at top business schools is around 29, a time when many women are thinking about starting a family. While doing an MBA and having children are not mutually exclusive, for many women - and their employers - an MBA feels like a career break too far.

Business schools are trying to find a way round this. The University of Bath School of Management, where 43 per cent of students are women, is in the top three in the world for female participation, and has found that offering a modular system of units allows for flexible study programmes.

"Students can fast-track it in two or stretch it out over five years," says admissions manager Maggi Preddy. "It helps that we have a lot of women in senior roles who understand the issues facing female students, such as multi-tasking and family commitments."

Having more women in senior management and academic roles can also help address the perception that the MBA is a "macho" qualification, appealing to hard-nosed high flyers and number crunchers.

"We need more females filling these types of position if we are to successfully persuade greater numbers of women to pursue an MBA," says Dr Patricia Rees, MBA director at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, where the proportion of women on the full-time MBA has jumped from 10 per cent to 30 per cent. "In my experience, once enrolled on the programme, women are by no means shrinking violets and soon take the initiative. It's all about getting them through the door in the first place."

MMUBS student Lynn Hughes agrees. Although one of only two women on the part-time MBA programme, she says there is no gender difference in terms of contributions in class. "The women are fairly confident and articulate," says Hughes, 47, a solicitor and mother.

Svetlana Novoseltseva, however, says she finds too many women are intimidated in the financial electives. "The men tend to be the ones speaking out and voicing opinions, which is a shame," she says of her experience at Judge. "But in the other electives the women do make a valuable contribution. Men and women do think differently so it is good to have that mix in class."

It's this apparent reticence to compete on the hard number-crunching subjects that has prompted a number of business schools to fine-tune their offering.

Research conducted by Judge Business School indicates that would-be female students are deterred by a lack of confidence in their abilities, compounded by a perception that the MBA is aggressively competitive. In response, the Cambridge Business School has designed its programme to have a collaborative style rather than an internally competitive structure. Likewise Ashridge Business School in Hertfordshire, promotes small class sizes and an emphasis on soft skills in a bid to attract female candidates.

Students say this approach works (see case study), as does the school's pre-MBA coaching which eliminates some of the fear factor. It all helps erode that macho image and edge numbers ever close to that elusive 50/50.

'I felt I should be around people with similar experience'

Mirjam Schokker worked at Hilton International for 16 years before studying for an MBA at Ashridge. She now works for a Dutch housing charity.

"I was working in a very specialised role and decided to do an MBA to see what else I could do. I picked Ashridge because I felt more comfortable with the small class sizes. There were 27, as opposed to 90 at IMD, which was my other choice. The average age of 35 was also very important to me as I was 36 when I started the MBA and I felt it was important I should be around people with similar levels of experience.

"The pre-MBA coaching at Ashridge was also very helpful. I did an 'MBA in a Day' and was assigned a buddy and given access to all their online facilities. This coaching also highlighted what they mean about the focus on the "soft skills". This is something that is difficult to explain in a brochure and doesn't get taken into account by league tables. But for a lot of women like me it's these soft skills we want to focus on.

"When I was researching business schools, people were just talking about career progression and making more money but I think for a lot of women, especially of my age, that's not what we're looking for. I already had a great career but I wanted to make a change to my lifestyle. Doing the MBA really transformed my life, especially as I also met my partner at Ashridge!"

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