Feminine mystique: Why more women are applying for MBAs

By Peter Brown
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:08

When Susan Miller did her MBA at Bradford in the 1980s, there was a hard-nosed emphasis on finance, economics and marketing. Since then the world has changed, she says.

"Softer skills are more in demand," says Miller, now the professor in charge of Hull Business School's part-time MBA. "I wouldn't say that women are necessarily better at these skills, but they are better at recognising their own limitations and building on that."

Employers are crying out for these softer skills, but until recently women have been slow to respond. This year, however, that seems to be changing. An employment market survey by the Association of MBAs (Amba) found that women comprised 30 per cent of all applications and graduates last year.

Next year, that figure could be higher. QS, an organisation that seeks out MBA candidates, found that women made up 46 per cent of those thinking about doing an MBA. "The global trend is towards more female applicants," it says.

Supporting evidence comes from London Business School. The percentage of women in its full-time MBA class is 25 per cent, but David Simpson, the acting associate dean, says that will increase this year to 30 per cent. "We're really pleased about it. All business schools are trying to increase the number of women in their classes, but these women are a finite resource and it's a very competitive marketplace."

The school actively markets to women, he says, but uses no positive discrimination in its application process. "It's simply that this year we have more women applying than before – and more good applicants, which is the important thing."

The same trend can be seen at Ashridge Business School in Hertfordshire. When Amy Armstrong, MBA director of marketing strategy, did her MBA there five years ago she was the only woman on her programme. "Now it's 30 per cent here," she says. "We're seeing more female applicants because we're making things more explicit in our promotional materials. We talk about the focus on personal leadership, self-reflection, emotional intelligence and self-confidence. And we just have many more testimonials from women."

Armstrong is in her mid thirties and has a two-year-old daughter. "At Ashridge, the approach is personal. We appreciate women have a duality in their lives – we have a pregnancy most years here – and we're flexible."

Indeed, flexibility is particularly important to women undertaking business education. Distance learning is the delivery mode that attracts the highest rate of female MBA applicants (37 per cent), according to the Amba survey.

The ideal age to take an MBA is often the age at which women have their first children. That need not, however, be a handicap. At the Judge Business School, Cambridge, Janet Chen gave birth to a boy halfway through the course and went on to complete her MBA, graduating this year. Another Judge student, Jacqueline Lim, got engaged this year to a fellow student, Simon Milward. She was in India for her individual project when he proposed, in front of the Taj Mahal.

But why do some schools attract more women than others? Physical surroundings make a difference, according to Andrea O'Mahony, MBA programmes manager at Nottingham University Business School, where women make up 43 per cent of full-time MBA students. "A great deal of time and thought was put into the design of the campus," she says, "from the sweeping grass mounds that students sit on to the large atrium spaces, and a restaurant which looks out over water."

Course content matters, too. "Financial incentives are one thing," says Armstrong, "but research suggests women over 30 look for intrinsic benefits – increased self-confidence, improving emotional intelligence, increased self-awareness. They want the opportunity to reflect. Younger women simply need to be professionally competent."

Research into such issues was carried out recently at LBS's Centre for Women in Business, founded in 2006. Unfortunately, its funds came from the failed investment bank Lehman Brothers, and it is searching for a new sponsor.

However, other initiatives are under way. The first 100 successful candidates have been chosen to join a programme for female entrepreneurs in China. Backed by Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, it will be run by Oxford's Saïd Business School and a partner institute at Zhejiang University.

A variety of scholarships is also available for women MBAs, but the prospect of lower earnings remains a stumbling block. "A lot of women choose to go into sectors or jobs that are lower paid," says Jeanette Purcell, Amba's chief executive."They go into human resources, or start their own businesses. But you have to ask why they are doing that. Is it because they know they haven't got the same opportunities as men in a big organisation?"

If employers want to find women for senior management posts, Purcell suggests, they should look at graduates from part-time and distance-learning MBA courses. Statistics suggest women prefer them.

'What women want is to be treated equally'

Kuldeep Brar, 35, recently finished her executive MBA at Cass Business School. She is working in marketing at the school before setting up her own business.

"I come from a marketing and sales background in the City, so for me Cass was a natural fit. It was accessible – I could walk to it from my job at St Paul's – and its reputation for evening and weekend teaching attracted me. I wanted a flexible course.

There were quite a few women on my course, from a wide range of backgrounds. We had some pregnancies, so the flexibilities of managing work and home life mattered.

Earnings? The women on the course were just as hungry as the men. I didn't notice any difference in the calibre, and the expectations reflected that.

I think what women want more than anything else is to be treated equally.

I'm hoping to start a business in a completely different direction – home-cooked, healthy, delivered foods. I'm calling it 'yummynosh'. The MBA has given me the confidence to do that."

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