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Enrolling on an MBA programme, particularly at an elite school, is for some the equivalent of taking an elevator to the executive suite. While the majority of Fortune 500 company chief executives do not hold MBAs, a significant 35 per cent do.

If you want to see more women in the boardroom, you could do worse than ensure that higher proportions study for an MBA, one argument goes.

Cagla Bekbolet, of Egon Zehnder International, the executive search firm, says: “I don’t think I’ve ever been asked whether a candidate has an MBA or not.” However, that does not mean the MBA is not an asset on the resumé.

“It gives me confidence in a candidate’s intellectual curiosity and rigour,” she says. While there are more men than women on board shortlists she adds, there does not appear to be any gender difference proportionately in those with MBAs.

The MBA remains a “badge of eligibility for top roles”, says Moira Benigson of London-based executive search firm MBS Group. She is handling an assignment to recruit a European chief executive for a US group, run by a woman with a Stanford MBA who is “incredibly disappointed by the level of what she calls ‘the smarts’. Now we’ve had to realign the brief, so that they have to have an MBA from a great school,” she says.

The number of women chief executives of Fortune 500 groups will, assuming no unforeseen changes, hit a record 18 in January. Of those who lead the US’s largest groups – seven Fortune 100 companies are run by women – five have MBAs: Meg Whitman, president and chief executive of Hewlett-Packard (Harvard); Lynn Elsenhans, chairman, CEO and president of Sunoco, (Harvard); Irene Rosenfeld, chairman and CEO of Kraft Foods (Cornell); Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo (Yale); and Ellen Kullman, chair and CEO of DuPont (Kellogg).

When, earlier this year, London Business School set a diversity target for its MBA programme, it did so in the belief that diversity in the boardroom starts at business school. “We are committed to seeing more women in business and when we looked at ways of achieving that, we thought ensuring our own MBA student intake was 30 per cent female could be one way of doing it,” says Diane Morgan, associate dean of degree programmes. Female participation in the school’s MBA had stalled at about 28 per cent. By setting a target, extending application deadlines and focusing on countries such as Russia and Japan, where the number of female applicants had been historically low, that has risen to 31.4 per cent this year.

However, the proportion of women enrolling on MBA courses globally is still under a third and has remained at this level for the past eight years.

Ms Benigson says: “MBAs have the edge. It’s not just the teaching but also to do with your peer group – it gives you incredible access if you’ve been to a top school. It’s a very, very good club to join. It is still very male-dominated, but that is changing.”

The Financial Times’ ranking of top 50 women in business includes 12 MBA alumni (24 per cent), clearly below the average for Fortune 500 chief executives. Of these, six are from US universities, four from Indian business schools and two from European schools. The majority (52 per cent) of women in the elite ranking have postgraduate qualifications.

These data reveal that some nationalities are more MBA-focused than others. Top US and Indian female chief executives are far more likely to have an MBA than their European or non-Indian Asian counterparts. Almost all Indian chief executives in the ranking, whether or not now located in India, hold MBAs.

The list includes six women who started and built up the enterprises they lead. They are all in Asia and none has an MBA. Like some of the Fortune 500 high-tech entrepreneurs – Oracle’s Lawrence Ellison, Michael Dell, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, visionary college dropouts all – they tend not to have studied for advanced business degrees. That may change with the growing focus on entrepreneurship in business schools.

Some women chief executives completed masters and doctorates in disciplines other than management. For example, Ursula Burns, chief executive of Xerox, decided against an MBA in favour of a masters in mechanical engineering.

“I joined Xerox as an engineer in a research lab and I was ambitious to be a very good engineer, hands-on, analytical, running experiments. I didn’t know about corporate structures and treasurers and CEOs, but I did know about chief engineers.”

Women who qualified as accountants or lawyers do not generally have MBAs: others got into a fast-paced career and never looked back. Maggie Wilderotter, chief executive of Frontier Communications, is one. “I felt MBAs were for people who didn’t really know what they wanted to do, or felt they didn’t have opportunity where they were and they needed this to boost them to the next level.”

But women chief executives who did invest in an MBA place high value on the experience. “Not only did it give me very good foundation skills in all disciplines of business …it also taught me how to solve problems,” says Nancy McKinstry, CEO of Wolters Kluwer. “To this day I take a very analytical approach.”

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