It is still a man's world at the top. According to a European Commission report, women remain heavily outnumbered by men in the boardrooms of the largest listed companies in all EU countries – the most recent figures show that fewer than 14 per cent of board members are female. Creating a pipeline of talented women to redress the imbalance at senior level is now seen as an important goal in the UK, and elsewhere.
An independent review led by Lord Davies in 2011 estimated that at the current rate of change it would take more than 70 years to achieve gender balance on the boards of the UK's largest 100 companies. A year later, there are modest signs of progress. Yet for this imbalance to continue levelling out internationally, today's generation of women need to equip themselves as effectively as possible for the challenge of breaking through the glass ceiling.
The MBA has a vital role to play in this respect, yet there are still many more men than women applying and studying for one. According to the Association of MBAs (Amba), which accredits business schools worldwide, only 31 per cent of students enrolling globally in 2010 were female. In the UK, applications to Amba schools were slightly higher, with around a third of them made by women.
So why aren't candidates coming forward in greater numbers? Sharon Bamford, Amba's chief executive and MBA herself, points to a major potential conflict. "The average age on a full-time MBA at Amba-accredited schools is 30 and 33 for a part-time course. This can often coincide with a decision to start a family and take a career break."
The MBA is an expensive course if you are self-funding and cost can be another inhibiting factor. Cass Business School in the City of London is one of several making determined efforts to attract more women applicants, partly by increasing the number of its Women in Business scholarships. "By expanding this scholarship scheme we aim to help highly experienced and openly ambitious female applicants to accelerate their careers," explains Sionade Robinson, director of the full-time MBA.
She points to the fact that the gender ratio on the full time course is now a healthy 45 per cent women to 55 per cent male students.
"We've taken a number of successful recruitment and marketing steps to debunk the myth that MBA programmes are male-dominated," adds Robinson's colleague Erica Hensens, who oversees the Cass MBA programmes. "These initiatives include holding specific events targeted at female applicants, such as our MBA Women as Leaders seminars, which examine the dynamics of leadership from a female perspective."
Doina Gudila, 37, originally from Romania, is one of the recent recipients of the Cass scholarship. Gudila emphasises that, having failed to get a loan, she could not have taken up her place without the £17,000 award.
She made the decision to apply to Cass after sitting in on a sample class in which they analysed Madonna's strategy to achieve stardom and the lessons from her approach that can be applied to business. "Having been working in the London hospitality industry for some time, I felt stuck and my hope is that the MBA will give me a chance to spread my wings and move to a new industry," she explains.
Creating a better balance between men and women on the MBA not only sets a good example to the commercial world, it can also have a positive impact on the learning process itself.
"My faculty report that the quality and richness of discussion has greatly improved since more female students have been admitted," says Erica Hensens. "Women appear to be more comfortable in considering a range of options before they take a final position and this is what business needs to replicate."
Gudila endorses this view. "We do a lot of work in small study groups of eight, generally with at least three women and it's amazing to see the amount of ideas that can be generated between us."
Richard Samuel, 40, chose to study for an executive MBA at Cass after actively looking for an MBA with a good gender balance. "Coming from the male-dominated construction and real estate world, I've certainly noticed the difference. In my field, conversations before decisions are made tend to be curt. Having a greater mix of men and women on the MBA forces you to be much more open," he says.
This proactive approach to redressing the gender balance could clearly be replicated elsewhere. As a mandatory entry test used by many business schools, the take-up rate of the GMAT exam is a useful barometer of trends. Dave Wilson, CEO of the Graduate Management Admissions Council, which administers the GMAT, points to the fact that women sat for a record 106,000 of the total exams taken globally, accounting for 41 per cent of all students heading for business schools.
"This is the closest female to male ratio ever seen," explains Wilson. "The largest number of women taking the GMAT in 2011 were from southeast and east Asia. In China, 64 per cent of those who sat the test were women. This contrasts with a 34 per cent female take-up in Europe. Many of these young Asian women are applying to management programmes all over the world and a good gender balance in a school's intake is likely to prove much more attractive to them."
GMAC's research shows that among women who do make it to management education, satisfaction rates are high. In global terms, 84 per cent of women who took a business degree report that it has helped them with their career progression.
This certainly comes as no surprise to Amba's Bamford. "In talking to women students all around the world, I find there is a consistent theme. Having equal status among a cohort of high-performing, ambitious individuals from many countries has not only given them the tools and the vocabulary to take their place in the boardroom but also greater confidence as their career progresses."