Listen to this article
There was a time when any woman who was serious about her career was advised to keep very quiet indeed about her domestic life ‒ especially if that life included children. Even now it is a brave woman who will broadcast her maternal identity in the workplace. But there is revolution in the air, and I believe that revolution should be nurtured in what has been traditionally the most conservative of environments: the MBA.
We need to see more mothers participating in the MBA at Oxford and other business schools. Mothers add unique value to the MBA, and serve as role models for both male and female peers, many of whom will at some point confront the challenge of balancing their career and parental responsibilities.
Importantly, having mothers on the MBA programme who are open about their roles and responsibilities accustoms others to working with them. All students can see at close quarters that mothers are as talented and committed as anyone else. They can recognise where the challenges lie, and help develop workarounds.
MBA students are constantly collaborating and finding solutions. I have witnessed groups reorganise their meeting to allow for the school run or meet at their classmate’s home when a babysitter cancelled. They will bring this understanding and flexibility into their roles after graduation, when they may be working with mothers; and it will give them added confidence if and when they too become parents.
Motherhood forces the development of certain skills — time-management for one. How much can you fit in while the baby is sleeping? How many emails can you answer in the café next to the birthday party? Mothers know how to prioritise, to work efficiently and to move between different projects or roles, making them well suited to the MBA workload. They have a heightened sense of self-awareness, which is a key to success in teamwork and leadership roles. Mothers have learnt how to genuinely support others, and therefore contribute to a positive learning environment and culture overall.
So what can business schools do to facilitate the participation of mothers in MBA programmes? The learning environment, much like the work environment, needs to adapt to the people in it, not the other way around. If we are to capitalise on the contributions that mothers make, we need to create positive opportunities for their participation. We need to make sure that mothers do not miss out on the networking culture of the MBA. The action needs to happen when and where the mothers are.
We have to provide mothers with support for housing and childcare, but it is also important that we think more creatively. For example, we should create spaces in our business school where mothers and children can comfortably convene. Let the children be visible. If the setting is right, it is perfectly possible to be productive, even with children at your feet. After a certain age, children can be brought into the conversation. I recently took my 10-year-old to an Oxford Union debate on responsible business and found her insights on the topic refreshing and unique. Children are the future voice of society and business; engaging them with our work and welcoming their ideas can be productive and rewarding.
I have no illusions about the challenges of motherhood and the specific challenges of balancing motherhood with demanding work. I am a mother of three daughters myself. You have to adapt continually: children at different ages need you in different ways. You have to learn how to clear your mind and clear your schedule when needed. In a work environment, you have to convince your colleagues to judge you, not by your presence or absence, but by your contribution. You are different as a mother and when you speak with a mother’s voice, you have to speak loudly to have your views accepted.
By encouraging mothers to study for the MBA and not to hide their children away while they do so, we will inspire more understanding and acceptance of parenthood and women in the workplaces of the future.
Dana Brown is the director of the MBA at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School.