For many, the MBA is the most difficult thing they will ever undertake. It is hard to imagine that this is the case for Laura Hughes.
Before joining the MBA class at IMD in Switzerland in January, she had spent years working on oil rigs in Egypt, Brazil and Gabon. Before that, she was captain of the women’s rugby team at university in the UK.
But Ms Hughes, 30, did not decide to do an MBA because it was a challenge. She is one of a growing band of women who see an MBA as a critical stepping stone in an executive career. “I’ve always pictured myself as having a long professional career. An MBA was always in the back of my mind,” she says.
Moreover, she believes that for women the MBA qualification can be more important than for men. “I learnt in the oil industry that you have to be twice as good as the guys because of all the preconceptions,” she says. In the case of women, employers look for the credibility of the qualification, she argues, more so than they might do with men.
IMD is one of the schools that has enrolled an increasing proportion of women on its MBA programme this year, but it is by no means alone. Statistics from the Graduate Management Admissions Council released at the end of 2006 show that 64 per cent of full-time MBA programmes saw an increase in the proportion of female applicants. Part-time programmes saw an increase of 47 per cent and executive MBAs of 50 per cent, according to the statistics.
That said, the percentage of women on the top, full-time MBA programmes is still woefully low: most have a ratio of at least two men to every woman.
The research from GMAC shows that the schools that succeed in attracting the most female applicants are those that have targeted outreach programmes. London Business School, which has increased the percentage of women on its programme this year from 22 to 28 per cent, has designed a brochure dedicated to women at the school and its Women in Business club has one-on-one chats with prospective women students.
Women applicants are also given access to female alumni working in the same field, if appropriate. “It’s high touch and much more personal,” says Julia Tyler, associate dean of the MBA programme at LBS.
On the other hand at IMD, Janet Shaner, director for MBA marketing, says that research among women students in Lausanne showed that they did not want women-specific marketing. Instead, they wanted the school to emphasise the elements of the programme women would find most interesting – such as personal development.
What is clear is that there is no simple answer as to why women are increasingly turning to MBAs, even if the increase is still only a trickle rather than a deluge. Students’ previous educational experiences, social pressures and attitudes of employers all play their part.
Ms Shaner believes increased publicity about women in senior management positions is one reason for the increase. Ms Tyler believes women are far more confident in their role in business.
Anecdotally, Ms Tyler says, there has been a real change in the way women behave in the classroom and in the wider business school community. In particular, more female students are taking on committee positions at the school. “I do sense a growing sense of confidence [in women students],” she says. “It’s no longer a boy’s club.”
Moreover, extensive publicity about the need for MBA programmes to concentrate on the softer skills of management rather than hard analytics – and the implementation of these types of courses – may have helped. So too might a growing concentration on courses within the MBA programme that educate managers for non-traditional jobs, in particular in the not-for-profit sector.
But not everyone is convinced. “A more balanced perspective to MBA curriculum, which values both the people skills and the financial skills, is critical to the success of both men and women in the business world,” says Linda Livingstone, dean of the Graziadio school at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles.
Last year Graziadio launched a morning MBA programme geared towards young mothers returning to the workplace. “There is a stereotypical expectation that women are more inclined toward the softer skills.”
What most schools do agree on, though, is that recruiters are increasingly interested in recruiting women graduates. “The holy grail is a woman with an MBA,” says a recruiter for one City of London bank.
“There is no doubt that recruiters are looking for diversity,” says Carol Stephenson, dean of the Ivey school at the University of Western Ontario and formerly a top Canadian IT executive. “Women are very well-positioned if they graduate from a top MBA programme. What I would say to women is that, if you are qualified and well-prepared, then the world is your oyster. To me the MBA is the preparation and the qualification.”
That said, there is still a substantial salary gap between earnings for male and female alumni. A survey conducted by the Financial Times in the autumn of 2006 of those who graduated in 2003 showed that men earned higher salaries in every sector. In finance and banking and in consulting, for example, men earned an average of $130,000. Women, by comparison, earned an average of $117,000 in finance and banking and $119,000 in consulting.*
The most constantly cited reason for the lack of women on MBAs is that the programme requires participants to have several years’ work experience and this puts them in their late 20s when they apply, when they are likely to have strong personal demands, such as starting a family.
At Ivey, Ms Stephenson points out, more than 40 per cent of students on both the undergraduate programme and the executive MBA programme (the latter intended for managers in their late 30s or early 40s) are women. The Ivey MBA programme enrols 35 per cent.
However, Ivey saw the percentage of women students rise from 26 per cent to 35 per cent when it moved from a two-year to a one-year programme. Ms Stephenson believes that this is because women in dual-profession relationships are often prepared to relocate for one year but not two, she says, and they are more likely to put off starting a family for one year.
Ms Hughes says one reason she chose IMD was that it was a one-year programme. The other was the international diversity in the classroom.
“I think women identify with the diversity.”
What is clear is that those women who do an MBA almost invariably think the experience is fantastic, says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs in London. Research done by the association shows that women are particularly impressed with the new skills they learn, in areas such as finance.
As for Ms Hughes, when she finishes her one-year intensive programme she has no plans to opt for an easier life. “I think it’s likely I’ll go back into the oil industry,” she says, “but in a broader role.”
*Financial Times MBA 2007: www.ft.com/businesseducation/globalmba2007