Perceptions of the MBA are already changing

The traditional view of the lone MBA-er depreciates men and women equally

In September, at a recent meeting of business school deans, a small group of us – females - were dismayed to read of the relatively poor performance of women in the current Harvard MBA programme in the New York Times.

The issues, it seemed, boiled down to ‘class behaviours’ of male students, which were reported as threatening to women and impairing their ability to score highly in class. Was this our experience, we asked ourselves? Did our students feel the same way? Is the business school environment any different from many other business contexts and if not, should it be? Had we really made such little progress with job destinations in 30 years and how could we discuss this without descending into a moan-fest (or being perceived as doing so).

As ever, answers to these questions are not straightforward. Armchair analyses frequently assume that the MBA degree is inherently male-oriented, requiring machismo to study and perform well. The picture drawn is of a course of study that is ‘quintessentially masculine, based on values of competition, individuality, instrumentalism and exclusivity,’ (The Independent newspaper 6 October, 2013).

Such assumptions are often attributed to troublesome causes; for example, that the proportion of women on the teaching staff is too low, that they might be intimidated by the quarrelsome lads on the course, that only when there is an equal participation rate of males and females in MBAS will there be any change. And the response? The need to highlight gender equality by means of one-off or annual fixtures such as a lecture to make the schools appear more woman-friendly? Is this really all the distance we have travelled as a community of business educators over the past 30 years?

My own experience of MBA teaching on five continents does not bear many of these assumptions out – at least not as a fixed general patterns. Both women and men of a reflective and quiet disposition can appear to be intimidated by the overly vocal – not all of whom are necessarily unreflective. However, they generally find ways of redressing the balance through the course of a class and usually with an impact that blows away their initial unobstrusiveness. The question is what do we value and reward among a group of business students – at MBA, or indeed, any other level of study?

Reading syllabi of business courses makes it pretty clear that beyond the balance sheet, cult of leadership, performance management and data-analytics, business school courses emphasise broad and most definitely post-crunch leadership attributes, including emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, critical thinking, group dynamics and influencing. But less clear is how we encourage ‘performance’ of these, or how we assess them.

While it is true that participation in MBA programmes among women is generally lower, that gap is closing in schools of quality as a result of deliberate actions with more programmes aimed at developing women directors and more scholarships to encourage and support women to enrol in MBA programmes. And this is happening internationally, from Hong Kong and Singapore, to Europe, the US and Australia.

Moreover, it is important to look beyond our traditional view of the lone MBA-er, focused on individual achievement at the expense of balance in their life or the lives of their family – a view often cited as yet another reason why women in the traditional MBA age – late 20s early 30s –cannot make the necessary time dedication to study for an MBA. Such a view depreciates both men and women in equal measure and is not just a little out of date. Many MBA (male) students report that their choice of school will involve considering how their families can be accommodated. A recent article in The Times noted male and female MBAs whose choice criteria included not only the quality of the schools they were attending, but also the quality of family friendly policies.

Looking at this familial issue from a different perspective, last year in the FT, three women who accompanied spouses on overseas postings subsequently enrolled in MBA programmes. Yet another indication of how the traditional notion of who undertakes an MBA, under what family conditions and why, can no longer be seen as reliable platforms upon which to examine the role of the MBA or business education in career and life development.

I see little systematic evidence of a bias in terms of post-MBA job level entry, with Strathclyde’s tracking showing clear evidence that women students have a comparable level of entry into the job market post-MBA. Those – male and female - who do particularly well by traditional career standards tend to have come from professions such as law, financial services or engineering and often demonstrate strong quantitative skills. Sales and marketing is also a function where female MBAs find fairly consistent success. We have seen fewer female entrepreneurs from a start-up perspective, but an increasing number in the last couple of years, as we focus our content more on entrepreneurship.

There are undoubtedly challenges about how we travel away from traditionally held views of the nature and direction of good business management. This is, however, a journey that is already well under way and tracking across many pathways of diverse customs and practices towards plural destinations capable of narrating good business around the world.

The author is the dean of Strathclyde Business School.

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