The argument is over: no chief executive or shareholder in his – or her – right mind can ignore the weight of evidence that says having a fairer, more inclusive and diverse executive board benefits a company’s bottom line.

Yet the trickle of women into senior positions, particularly boardroom roles, has yet to become a healthy flow. Much still depends on individual leaders with an eye for talent.

The insurance industry, for example, is still a man’s world, says Elena Barsheva, who leads Zurich Insurance’s corporate business division in Moscow. “There are not many female executives in the industry and Zurich is a rather conservative company,” she says.

“There is no special separate policy for female career development at Zurich. It comes down mainly to the initiatives of individuals.

“Our regional director believes people should develop their capabilities, and high-potential employees who have been trained and received the new knowledge should be promoted.”

Consequently, Barsheva is studying for an executive MBA at Cass Business School in London. In the early 1990s, perestroika forced her to switch from a PhD in chemical engineering to a career in finance and insurance.

“My insurance skills have served me well, but they are very specific. I need an MBA to widen my sphere of activity,” she says. “Also, the new competitive environment requires new approaches and techniques unknown in the Soviet era, such as strategy and change management.”

But even employers who have adopted gender-focused initiatives need talent spotters. Technology service provider CDW Canada oversees several development schemes, including the Women’s Opportunity Network (WON), that works with female employees to develop key leadership characteristics and skills.

But personal, senior endorsement makes a big difference, agrees Mary Ann Yule, vice-president and general manager of CDW Canada. She has completed a Kellogg-Schulich executive MBA at the Schulich School of Business in Toronto.

“It was our chief executive, who is now chairman, who recommended I pursue an executive MBA,” says Yule. “CDW provided me with full sponsorship so that I could complete the programme and supported me throughout the process.”

Sponsoring an employee through an executive MBA is a significant investment for any employer. The Kellogg-Schulich fee, for example, is more than $110,000. The number of employers sponsoring employees through an executive MBA for the full amount fell to 27 per cent in 2011 from 34 per cent before the financial crisis, according to research published by the Executive MBA Council.

Poor return on investment is the reason cited by some organisations, but the Executive MBA Council says it takes, on average, 17 months from the start of an executive MBA for a company to achieve a return on investment.

Yule says the payback to her company was almost instant. “Throughout the MBA there were things, strategic and tactical, that I was able to implement and introduce almost immediately to CDW Canada.”

Another Schulich executive MBA graduate, Susan Uthayakumar, says it is important that women have an employer sympathetic to the other commitments they need to juggle while they do an executive MBA.

As chief financial officer of Schneider Electric Canada, the electrical engineering company, Uthayakumar spends a considerable amount of time focused on acquisitions and the integration of acquired companies.

“There is strong support here for training and development of women. Last year the company launched a women’s leadership programme with a focus on providing mentors who hold very senior positions in the company,” says Uthayakumar.

“I have been impressed by the number of opportunities that have been made available to me and the support I have received from the senior executive team with regard to my aspiration to move into general management.

“And personally, I have really valued having flexibility at work, which has allowed me to balance family, work and executive MBA commitments.”

Employers should not underestimate the impact of an executive MBA in accelerating the development of their senior women, says Peggy Bishop Lane, new vice-dean of the MBA for executives programme at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“I teach financial accounting in the first term, and often in the middle of class I hear ‘a-ha’ moments. Students’ ability to grasp specifics but also the bigger picture around the company is enhanced within a very short space of time,” she says.

“That is the beauty of an executive MBA – being able to apply learning as [students] go through it. That knowledge allows them to take a deeper role, improve their performance and build confidence in themselves.

“Those are key messages that resonate with anyone but are particularly relevant to women. An executive MBA is a great way of kicking your career into another gear. It is hard work, but hard work typically pays off.”

The executive MBA fills a “unique and valuable niche” at healthcare company Johnson & Johnson, says Michael Ehret, vice-president of leadership development and learning. “An executive MBA fits in nicely where we want to give executives a really broadly based business perspective and branch them out.

“It works really well when developing people to become general managers and business unit leaders, particularly if they come from a research and development or supply chain background and don’t have much commercial experience.

“An executive MBA provides great opportunities and academic background to support that development.”

Naomi Furgiuele, who trained as a chemical engineer and is now a manager in Johnson & Johnson’s medical device business, has just started the Wharton MBA for executives.

“It is not just financial support an employer needs to give but also time out of work. I am at school every other Friday and Saturday, but I have my manager’s support,” she says.

“We have set our goals for the year and I can make up the time I am at Wharton over the course of the month. As long as I deliver on my business objectives, it is 100 per cent support.

“Wharton also does a fantastic job of integrating into the programme all the other pieces of your life. For example, my children have come to see where I study and where I stay when I am at school. That is important because there are times when I have to work that would normally be family time.”

Business schools, however, must not be complacent, cautions Gail Romero, chief executive of MBA Women International, a not-for-profit body that aims to empower female business professionals. “The companies we speak with say, ‘yes, executive MBAs are great’, but they tell us they need women leaders who are agile in their thinking and have cross-cultural ethics and communication skills.

“I am not sure all business schools are agile enough to plug that gap in their MBA programmes.”

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