Selling MBAs to women

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Female, mid-thirties, mid-career ... that was my profile when I applied to MBA courses in 2007.

After seven years as a physiotherapist in Australia and the UK, I was seeking a challenge and a change and an MBA promised the development of skills and an opportunity to explore a different career path.

So it was that I found myself in the 2007-08 MBA class at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School.

On my first day, I stood in a suit in a crowd of diverse people with impressive credentials.

However, it was clear that, as a woman, I was in a definite minority.

Interestingly, as MBA programmes have sought more diverse candidates, ensuring the gender balance remains difficult.

This is a curious and persistent trend across the world. The proportion of female MBAs has plateaued at about 30 per cent.

This is in spite of recruitment strategies targeted at women: 56 per cent of full-time, 29 per cent of part-time and 78 per cent of executive MBA programmes actively do so, according to data published in 2007 by GMAC (the Graduate Management Admission Council). Despite these efforts, there has been little change in female application trends in the past few years.

Curious about why women seemed resistant to the lure of an MBA, and given the opportunity to explore the subject as part of my final project, I conducted interviews with 12 women who graduated from Judge between 1998 and 2000.

Just as in my class, they had varied backgrounds and experiences; most had 6 years work experience and managed teams but, otherwise, were from different countries and industries. These interviews, while they did not constitute robust research, provided interesting food for thought for schools.

First, the pitches used by business schools to attract applicants – salary increase, ranking position of the school and employment destination – may not be the right motivational levers. The interviewees indicated that career enhancement was the primary motivator.

Furthermore, the MBA provided an opportunity to achieve credibility and confidence at work, and an opportunity to gain overseas work experience.

In addition to this, none of the women mentioned the GMAT or the financial burden as barriers – contrary to conventional wisdom.

The women had much to say about the MBA experience itself. They considered the team work and soft skill courses the most useful. While hard skill acquisition is an expectation of an MBA, raising the softer elements of the course may attract women.

The third interesting insight was the variation in the degree’s perceived value. It is clear that consulting companies and multinationals value it. However, other significant employers – the public sector and the third sector, for instance – are less familiar with it. This could influence the number of applicants from these areas and also the number of graduates employed in them.

These are also the sectors in which women reach executive and senior leadership in larger numbers. So, if schools can demonstrate the value of an MBA to them, female applicants will surely increase.

Perhaps business schools need to put into practice the advice they give in the classroom.

In any marketing course there is an emphasis on the understanding of the market, not only at the point of purchase but right through to the use and repurchase of the product.

If schools are committed to ensuring gender balance they must take more time to understand the MBA experience and career developments after graduation. This will enable them to develop recruitment strategies meaningful to women.

My experience at Judge has already proved invaluable: I now have the confidence and skills to pursue a career in public sector health strategy and a global network of diverse professionals.

Interestingly, while just 30 per cent of my class were women, seven of the top 15 were female.

Business schools can only benefit from building on the diversity of classes, and this includes gender.

Robyn Hudson graduated from Judge in 2008. She now works in strategic development at UCL Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

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