Although progress in the UK is still decidedly slow, it seems that the imbalance between the sexes in the boardroom or around the partnership table is finally being addressed in many corners of the world. In the new economic powerhouse of China, for example, one in three management positions are now held by women, while in India more than a tenth of chief executives are female. In Europe, Germany is aiming for 30 per cent of corporate directorships in the hands of women by 2015, while France has introduced a new law with a target of 40 per cent by 2017. But how are the world's top businesses preparing ambitious women to take on the roles that this trend is creating?
According to the latest survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), women currently account for just over a third of applicants to full-time MBA programmes. London Business School has set a goal of 30 per cent women on its flagship programme by 2013, while a handful of other top European schools, including the EADA Business School in Barcelona, the Cass Business School in London and Vlerick Leuven Gent near Brussels, have already exceeded this. However, some of the most dramatic progress towards gender equality has taken place in North America. At Harvard Business School, the percentage of female MBA students is 39 per cent, its highest ever, while the percentage of women in the new intake at the Wharton School in Philadelphia is a record 45 per cent.
Much of this rise in applicant and student numbers is down to the general assertion of women in the workplace, but as Giselle Weybrecht, a London Business School graduate of 2007 reflects, the MBA has until now been very much a man's world. "The majority of the faculty are men, the case studies and role models are men, the students are mostly men. But then the business sector is also mostly men at high levels too."
For Wybrecht, now an author and entrepreneur, the MBA's timing can be dissuasive, aimed as it is at young professionals in their late 20s. She also regrets an issue of self-confidence. "I hear from prospective female students that they don't think they will get in to business school. They seem to doubt themselves a little bit more. I only have words of encouragement, having never regretted doing the MBA. It was a tough two years for us all, but I loved the time. It's all about what you choose to get out of it."
But schools around the globe have also been working hard to promote business education to women through a range of specific learning initiatives, and working with universities and involving their female alumni to share their experience. Australia's Melbourne Business School, for example, has developed a network, Women in Management, for female students and alumni. It has also introduced a scholarship targeted at high-potential female managers. EADA, which was founded by a woman in 1957, has developed specialist leadership programmes for women in the private and public sectors and in fast-growth markets in regions such as Latin America.
To prove to its students, quite literally, that there is nothing preventing them scaling the heights, the executive MBA programme, OneMBA, and the full-time MBA at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) have challenged their female participants to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in the company of Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to climb the highest mountain on every continent. Dianne Bevelander, associate dean of OneMBA at RSM, sees this leadership elective as a metaphor for business, using the mountain as a classroom. "These women will need to work together through difficult terrain to push past physical and mental barriers in their trek to the summit," she explains. "The activity will help participants break down their own perceptions of their limitations, whether physical or emotional. They can be anything they want to be."
Some commentators have pointed out that if growth in the number of female students continues, we might reach a point soon where MBA programmes no longer accurately reflect the actual mix of men and women in management. But is this really a problem? Not according to Elissa Sangster, CEO of the Forté Foundation, the association of corporations and business schools that promotes the role of women in leadership: "I think we need to address the imbalance we already have before we start worrying about raising false expectations. If we empower women and bolster their enthusiasm and confidence through the business school experience, it will be very interesting to see what can be achieved over the next few years."
For the time being, there still appears to be some doubt as to how effective business education can really be at addressing the unequal balance of power between the sexes. According to recent research by the diversity campaigner Catalyst, among 9,000 graduates of 26 top MBA programmes, the experience was not providing female students with entry into a genuinely level playing field. Instead, the research showed that, on average, new female MBAs were earning £3,000 per year less than their male counterparts in their first post-graduate job. A similar study at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business found that, while new female entrants to the workplace earn roughly the same as their male peers, 10 years down the line the difference in reward was anything up to 40 per cent.
Simply putting more women through business education may therefore not be enough to solve the problem. "I'm confident that many of the women coming through MBA programmes now will go on to assume board-level positions," says Jordi Díaz, associate dean at EADA. "But given the fact the average MBA student is in their late twenties to early thirties, that could be 20 years from now. The real challenge is how to deal with disparity of opportunity now."
That may not be within the scope or power of business schools. Instead, the emphasis may lie on employers and governments to cultivate environments that allow female business leaders to fulfil their potential.
"It's not just a case of getting talented women into business, it's a question of keeping them there and providing them with the opportunities for fulfilling careers," says Forté's Elissa Sangster. "And in my view, setting targets to provide the pipeline of women that businesses will need when recruiting top talent for their leadership positions is critical."