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At the first meeting with her executive MBA group, Jennifer Alonso found herself among 30 or so students. They stood in pairs, holding pieces of string, which they used to lift up the programme director. “I would never have imagined you could have lifted her off the ground like that, but we did,” says Alonso.
The scene of the exercise was the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, where Alonso was about to embark on the OneMBA, a programme run in partnership with five other schools around the world. The lifting exercise was designed to let the students know they would not have to manage the balancing act of work, family and studies on their own, as their cohort would support them.
For Alonso, who at the time had two small children, this was a powerful message: if the juggling act required when taking an executive MBA is tough, it is more so for women with young families.
“When you are in a programme like this, you are expected to perform at the same level as men,” says Alonso. “The pressure is probably not so different between the men and the women. But in that group, three of us were married with young children, and it was that group that really had increased responsibility.”
Graham Clark, academic director of the MBA programme at Cranfield School of Management in Bedfordshire, sees differences in the way men and women with children approach the study period.
“In general, when a man does an executive MBA, the family fits around the studies,” he says. “It seems that when mothers do the MBA, they have to still do everything they did before as well. Very rarely is there the same degree of compromise when the boot is on the other foot.”
Shin Lee, a Hong Kong-based strategic planning manager at Wells Fargo Bank, acknowledges that taking on an executive MBA as a mother involves a heavy commitment.
“Everyone has a similar experience, but it is a matter of degree,” says Lee, who had a nine-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son when she embarked on the Trium global executive MBA. This is a degree awarded jointly by the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University, HEC in Paris and the London School of Economics. “With two children, it adds another layer of complexity,” she says.
In managing this complexity, the support of fellow students – who provide a valuable network for all executive MBA participants – is particularly helpful for women with children.
“The cohort becomes critically important to your success,” says Sarah Perez, Kenan-Flagler’s director of executive MBA programmes. “This group becomes your second family.”
Of course, in addition to relying on the support of fellow students, women with children also need to ensure that, before embarking on an executive MBA, they have the support of their colleagues and bosses.
This, says Perez, means making sure these individuals understand fully the added responsibilities the course will entail for mothers.
“It is important to speak to the people you work with and for, and for them to understand what you are doing and that it might affect some of their time in the office,” she says.
The flexibility employers can give mothers also depends on their role in the company. For Anna Gburczyk, who discovered she was pregnant within two weeks of being accepted for the London Business School executive MBA, remote working is possible because of the nature of her work as manager of a large information technology project in a telecoms company.
“I have a very supportive manager who has also just had a baby girl,” says Gburczyk, a Polish national with a background in finance. “So he understands.”
For women who have children and are considering embarking on an executive MBA, the most important sources of support are their partner, friends and family. Beate Nicholls, head of project management excellence at Siemens, studied for the Cranfield executive MBA. Being a single parent, she had to rely more heavily on her teenage children than she might otherwise have done. “They had to do their own ironing and prepare their own meals,” says Nicholls. “So actually it helped them.”
She established a rigorous regime for the family. Meals were taken together, but after dinner she would lock herself in her office with strict instructions not to be disturbed except in an emergency. “They understood,” she says. “That is really important if you want to get your studies done.”
Some schools have established systems that supplement the family network. At Cranfield, learning teams made up of course participants are set up to support each group.
“If someone is struggling, the learning team will help,” says Clark. “That mutual support from the learning team is critical.”
Yet while many talk about the importance of turning to external resources while studying for an executive MBA, most women stress the need to tap into their internal strengths and personal coping methods.
Lee had to become an expert in compartmentalisation. “You need to be present in doing what you are doing at any moment,” she explains. “My time with family was limited, so I learnt to put away school work efficiently so that I could concentrate on them.”
The combined pressures of work, study and family also mean setting priorities is crucial. Alonso admits that, as a perfectionist, this was an important lesson. “It is about letting go of the unimportant, focusing on the meaningful and doing things in a way that is good enough – and feeling good about that,” she says.
Above all, says Gburczyk, anyone doing an executive MBA while managing work and children has to be an optimist. “Family support is very important,” she says. “But you also need to have the attitude that anything is possible.”