MBA: The Only Way for Women Is Forward

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Why MBA experience is the fast lane to business leadership

Diversity is one of the hottest topics in the corporate world right now. Yet international universities and business schools have been demonstrating their passion for diversity for decades. Designed to contribute to the prosperity of society and celebrate learning for all, higher education holds inclusivity to a higher standard than any other institution.

Consistent gender diversity, in particular, is a major objective for international universities. Immersing in an MBA experience has proven to set women on the fast lane to career progression and leadership positions.

Gaining traction

While industries such as engineering are still on their way to achieving gender balance, there are fields which are predominantly female-centric. A 2016 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found out that 72% of HR managers in the country are women. Another study with a sample of 123 countries concluded that the international healthcare and social sectors are composed of 67% female workers.

When it comes to leadership positions occupied by women, the numbers usually look different. Although more and more organisations recognise the value of diversity and gender balance in managerial roles, only 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 6% of S&P 500 CEOs are women. This is in stark contrast to research suggesting that companies believe that “gender diversity helps improve business outcomes” and leads to higher profitability and productivity, according to a 2019 report called “Women in Business and Management: The business case for change”.

Nevertheless, numbers are steadily improving and women are filling managerial ranks faster than men in some regions, including Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and Central Asia. The reasons for this are many and complex. From educational initiatives and policies to social and economic circumstances, there are different factors that hinder or advance gender equality.

Where does business and management education stand on the topic?

Striking the balance in the MBA classroom

In many cases, business schools lead the way in terms of gender diversity. MBA cohorts and faculties often feature greater representation of different demographic groups compared to companies in some fields. This practice helps everyone feel included and appreciated but it also brings additional benefits for the learning that happens inside the classroom. Cited by Harvard Business Review in 2019, a significant body of research has proven that diverse teams are able to come up with more innovative ideas. When men and women are represented in equal numbers within the business school classroom, participants can exchange perspectives that are unique and inclusive.

Universities recognise the value of classroom diversity very well. Elissa Sangster, CEO of the Forté Foundation, a non-profit focused on women’s advancement in business school, recently shared optimistic data in an article for the Financial Times. A total of 22 of the 52 school members of the organisation boasted over 40% women enrolled in their MBA programmes in 2020, and eight schools reported totals over 45%.

MBA: The Only Way for Women Is Forward

The impact of in-class diversity is immediately noticeable to students, as Laura Derry shared about her experience of pursuing a joint MBA/MD degree.

“In business school, where we learn just as much from our classmates as our professors, [diversity of thought and perspective] is critical to a well-rounded and stimulating education,” Derry told FIND MBA.

Although extremely important, the value of the MBA is not focused solely on the myriad of perspectives that participants are exposed to. The degree packs a punch when it comes to preparing ambitious professionals for a competitive business environment. More and more women are looking for this boost in confidence and hard and soft skills training. Heading the Forté Foundation for more than 17 years now, Sangster is positive that the MBA opens up new opportunities for women, increases their salary, and gives them the economic advantage to transition to a new role or industry.

Stimulating environment

Scholarships for women are a big step forward for the recruitment efforts of international universities. London Business School (UK) offers three types of scholarships specifically for female candidates – a general one, one for Latin
American candidates, and another for candidates from the Middle East. Most universities also work with external scholarship and fellowship providers which contribute with additional funding opportunities, usually covering 100% of the tuition fees.

It is important to mention that the ambitions of MBA programmes do not end with classroom diversity during the admissions phase. To create meaningful and long-lasting impact, business schools invest in diverse projects to support women in their education and career journeys. Scott DeRue, dean of Ross School of Business (US), believes that the increased participation of women in their MBA classes is a result of broader strategic initiatives at the university. One example is the annual Women in Leadership Conference where “speakers address issues such as how to create inclusive communities, become a better ally for other female students, and navigate imposter syndrome,” according to the Financial Times.

Another impressive project comes from Washington University’s Olin Business School (US) with its Olin Women in Business club. The organisation is run by students and it features initiatives such as “Men as Allies” which encourages men to think about their role in the fight for gender equality. Notable examples from other institutions include expanding the case studies taught as part of the curriculum (so that they include more diverse protagonists) and investing in inclusion training of the faculty.

“The MBA taught me to have a voice”

For women who are faced with additional barriers to employability and career growth, obtaining the coveted business diploma can be exceptionally empowering. IESE Business School (Spain) graduate Amna Alyamani, Class of 2019, has already returned to her homeland of Saudi Arabia to start her own business – a bakery franchise. Thanks to her training as a pastry chef and her newly acquired business skills, Alyamani is passionate about creating jobs for women in a country which is only now starting to open itself to their rights and potential. The teaching methodology in her programme inspired her to speak her mind and challenge the opinions of others. “It taught me to have a voice and to speak up,” Alyamani says.

Of course, every candidate has their own motivation for opting to do an MBA, even when they are not experiencing any extraordinary challenges. Some professionals, both men and women, feel the time has come to switch careers and transition to another industry. The MBA is perfectly attuned to that too. This was the reason Ali Brewer, Global Marketing Director at Wilson Sporting Goods, decided to pursue her MBA from Wisconsin School of Business (US) 15 years ago.

“As a career switcher looking to go from finance into marketing without any ‘real’ marketing experience, it was essential to get my MBA,” Brewer says.

But she also makes it clear that female applicants need to assess their goals before jumping into any given programme at all cost. “An MBA was what I needed to get where I wanted, but that is not the case for everyone,” she adds.

Like Ali Brewer, we all need an opportunity to get where we want. While much remains to be done to support women in business and leadership roles, the outlook for overcoming some of the challenges is positive. Finally, the only way for women is forward.

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