UK business schools still struggle to name any high-flying female MBAs

Emma Gervasio, a 33-year-old marketing director, has just started an Executive MBA at Cass Business School in London, and is aiming for the top. "I'm totally committed to my career and have taken out a socking great loan to do this," she says.

But the business culture is proving a shock to her. "I did my degree at a women-only college in Cambridge, and a postgraduate degree at Oxford, both in arts subjects, and then I worked in the arts and marketing which tend to have a lot of women in them, so I have always been surrounded by powerful, educated, independent women. But as you move into the wider business world, and meet people at higher levels, there are just fewer and fewer women."

This is brutally reflected in the salaries that women with MBAs earn. According to the 2008 Career Survey by the Association of MBAs, which looked at the salaries of 2,000 MBAs worldwide, women gain much less from the qualification than men. In the UK a woman with an MBA can look forward to an average salary 18 per cent lower than that of a men, while in the USA the gap is 13 per cent, and in Germany an astonishing 40 per cent. The figures are, says Mark Stoddard, accreditations project manager for AMBA, "quite striking."

So does this mean that blatant discrimination is still rampant in the workforce? Not exactly, says Professor Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who has just published a new study of the careers of women with top MBAs. "I used to believe that the glass ceiling was entirely man-made but this research has changed my mind. We are simply not seeing women in first order jobs, or working for big corporations."

Her work indicates there is little difference in the career choices and progressions of men and of women without children, but that, when family responsibilities come into play, things change dramatically for women, especially if they are married to high-earning men who can support them.

"There are lots of stories from social psychology about women not being aggressive enough, and not asking enough, but I was looking at a very self-selected group of ambitious and risk-taking women, so that doesn't really apply here. What happens is that when women have their first child they take time out and then a lot do not re-enter, or they work shorter hours, or they do not go back into investment firms, or they work from home."

This is clear on the ground. Many UK business schools struggle to name any high-flying women MBA graduates they have trained and produce the same small handful of achievers over and over again. Yet, at the same time, information about the difference between men and women's business careers is mounting.

Professor Lyn Davidson, an organisational psychologist at Manchester Business School, has been asking her students for the past seven years what they expect to earn five years after graduation. Men mention a figure of £52,000 and women £41,000. She also asks them what they think they deserve. "On average the men think they deserve £10,000 more a year than the women do. That's 25 per cent more than the women think they're worth – a staggering figure."

Sam Bradshaw, 31, gained her MBA last year from the Open University Business School and has just taken a job as head of merchandising for the fashion house Escanda. She knows her worth, but also knows the barriers women can face. "I didn't have a degree and I wanted to learn more about business and economics, but I certainly couldn't have done it if I'd had children, or without my husband who has been brilliant and done the shopping, and all my dry cleaning runs, and everything.

"We don't want to have children, and I see myself eventually running a company or being the director of a big company. But it is a lot of hard work if you want to push on to that level, and I do think it's an obstacle if you have a family and want more flexibility. In retailing it's not so bad because there are a lot of women but I believe in the City it's horrific – for many women it's just 'game over', and they have to go off home and be mum."

Emma Gervasio sees the gap between men and women's lives already developing as people take their MBAs. "A couple of the blokes on my course have wives who are pregnant, but it is inconceivable that a woman could be pregnant and still doing the course."

But for Professor Susan Vinnicombe, director of the international centre for women leaders at Cranfield University School of Management, all this talk of family commitments won't wash. "Men earn more and this isn't just to do with women jumping out and having families," she says. "There is evidence of substantial differences in what is paid to men and what is paid to women with MBAs, and this reflects what's happening in the wider world."

She says that research done in the US shows that there is no difference between the pay of men and women who have built their careers by moving from job to job. "Women aren't always savvy about staying on top of their market value and they're not good at leveraging their salaries by moving."

Men, she says, tend to do MBAs specifically to increase their salaries and get a better job, while women say they want to extend their business learning and feel more confident. "It's all about mindsets around pay, negotiation and promotion. Women naively tend to believe they will be offered the right salary for a job."

Such issues have significant policy implications for business schools and employers. Business schools obviously need to think harder about the offer they are making to women students. Do women need more training in how to set up their own businesses, which is a choice many make when they have children? Or should schools be teaching women more about self-promotion and how to ask for bigger salaries and bonuses?

Employers, in turn, need to, to look beyond who is tub-thumping about their own worth to where the very best talent lies, if they seriously want to get top people into top jobs.

'It is still harder for a woman to get the same post as a man'

Adriana Alvarez-Nichol, 36, is a managing director at Barclays Wealth.

Alvarez-Nichol trained as an economist in her native Mexico, where she worked for the country's Banking and Securities Commission, and did her MBA 11 years ago at London Business School to expand her skills and work in a global context. Money was not a driver. "I never did the numbers. I was working for the Mexican Government at the time, so there was only one way I could go!"

She worked briefly in consultancy and joined Barclays nine years ago. "When you leave your MBA you see an immediate increase in remuneration, but that doesn't always last. Banking is aggressive and performance-driven and women are shy about pushing for better salaries and bonuses. This matters particularly at the middle level in an organisation, so that is when women can start falling behind."

She has no children and says that it is difficult for women who want to do everything. "I am saying that as someone working in quite a protective and supportive environment, with a committed boss," she says. "It is still harder for a woman to get the same post as a man, and sometimes people find it hard to envisage a woman in certain roles. If a woman has to look after her children as well, without a good support network, then that is an insupportable demand."

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