The MBA glass ceiling

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The Independent Online

Lack of encouragement and the biological clock prevent many women from taking an MBA.

Numerous studies suggest women are more risk-averse when it comes to making financial investments, opting for bonds rather than equities and taking a prudent approach to personal debt. Could this account for the low number of women on MBA programmes? The jury is out. “There may be greater financial pressures on women,” says Bob Berry of Nottingham University Business School. “If there’s a lower rate of salary progression, then they may find it harder to put together the block of cash needed to fund a year out of work.” He’s not convinced this is the whole story, however, and highlights other obstacles, such as the macho image of the MBA and the burden of childcare.


Stephan Chambers, MBA programme director at Saïd Business School in Oxford, also holds this view. “I would be surprised if more women than men are put off by the cost,” he says. “Women in their late twenties tend to be no better or worse off than their male counterparts.” In 2000, a survey by Catalyst, a research firm, was launched to find out why women’s enrolment had plateaued at 25-30 per cent, where it remains today. It found little mention of financial concerns. The barriers identified by women graduates included lack of female role models (56 per cent); incompatibility of careers in business with work/life balance (47 per cent); lack of confidence in maths skills (45 per cent); and a lack of encouragement by employers (42 per cent). Some of these barriers, such as lack of role models, are being addressed by business schools, with many already taking steps to ensure their faculty, case studies and marketing literature better reflect society at large. Other barriers are more intractable: work/life balance and lack of employer encouragement, for example, will require a cultural shift in the workplace.


The biggest issue is biology. Progammes recruit work-seasoned graduates with an average age range of 27 to 35, exactly the time when women often plan to take timeout to have children. There are, of course, amazing women who do both – one Cass Business School student recently did her corporate finance exams just two weeks after giving birth – but the ticking of the biological clock plays loudly for women, and their employers. “It’s slightly harder for women in their 30s to justify to their employer why they should invest this kind of money [sponsoring an MBA] if they consider you may subsequently also take time off to have children,” says communications director Jane Roberts, who likes the idea of doing an MBA but worries about the cost. “I do think men could be better at putting a case forward for this kind of financial support.” There is certainly plenty of research to back that up: men are better at asking for, and getting, financial support from their employers, be it pay rises, bonuses or business education. Yet there are plenty of women who do MBAs, with or without employer support, taking on significant debt to pursue their ambitions.

Angela Davis, for example, studied an MBA at the Open University, which she funded by running her own business and racking up debt on credit cards. “It was a bit of a hope-and-prayer attitude towards future salary increases,” says Davis. It paid off, with the IT consultant’s salary increasing three-fold on graduation. “I’m now a solutions architect which is quite different from the role I used to do,” she says. “The MBA has opened up that door for me, so all the sacrifices for those five years were worth it.” She admits, however, this decision would have been more difficult if she’d had children.

Strategy consultant Sally Taplin is studying for an EMBA at Cass Business School in London. Her employer picked up half the fees and she financed the rest through savings and a loan. “I see the MBA as an investment in myself and I took a pragmatic view on the costs because I know it will pay off in a fairly short time frame,” she says. “I was surprised how few women are in my class. I don’t think women are more risk averse when it comes to financial decisions because one of the biggest financial decisions you can make is to have a child, and women do that all the time.There are bigger issues, such as when to do this, when to have children and whether you can do both.”

Women, it seems, are sensitive to the financial burden of an MBA but are equally aware of the longerterm rewards. Risk assessment becomes more complex, however, when family circumstances are added to the mix: after all biology, unlike loan repayments, cannot be deferred.

Funding sources for women

The Forte Foundation
Provides financial support to female MBA students.

Saïd Business School
Offers a scholarship worth £23,000 to the winner of an essay competition on the topic “Is the glass ceiling a male conspiracy?”

London Business School
Has a number of womenonly scholarships, including three generous awards worth £20,000 each sponsored by Deutsche Bank.

Cranfield School of Management
Offers two scholarships worth £14,000 each in partnership with Aurora.

Tanaka Business School
Has three £10,000 scholarships for female candidates.