Women who achieve an MBA report tremendous satisfaction with their business school experience, as well as the value employers place on the degree and the resulting job opportunities. And that’s not surprising, since an MBA provides women with the education and credentials to follow a diverse array of career paths-and an opportunity to stand out from the crowd along the way. Yet women remain vastly outnumbered by men in business school, with enrollment of women in top MBA programs averaging 30 percent, versus the numbers for female enrollment in law and medical schools, which nears 50 percent.
The good news is that business schools aren’t happy with the discrepancy. Even better, more and more are working hard to close the gender gap with a variety of initiatives targeted to help dispel the attitudes, myths and barriers women may (or may not) face in what, historically, has been a predominantly male world.
According to a prominent study, women cite a number of reasons for not enrolling in MBA programs including the perception that the male-dominated business school environment is too competitive and intimidating. Other issues of concern: the lack of opportunity to study with female professors; and the absence of female role models in the business world.
Women also frequently cite the challenges of combining other life goals with the demands of an MBA program-primarily because the average age for starting business school is 28, which tends to coincide with the same age most women are focusing on marriage and children. This paradox also helps explain why female enrollment is so much higher in other graduate programs. Law and medical school programs are typically entered immediately following college graduation and, of course, it’s also not possible to practice as a lawyer or M.D. without the requisite degree. In contrast, there’s no professional credential required to enter the business world and begin climbing the corporate ladder. Plus MBA admissions have typically been contingent upon a significant accumulation of work experience and achievements, although this trend is beginning to change.
Another issue that concerns some women is whether or not their math skills will measure up. But the fact is, while quantitative studies are integral to the business school curriculum, there are a number of concentrations-such as marketing, e-commerce and human resources-where number crunching isn’t a constant focus. What’s more, women will find that many business schools offer pre-term programs that will help them get up to speed before beginning the program. And for women who worry they might feel uneasy in what they perceive to be the “typical” MBA classroom, a study conducted about women and the MBA shows these concerns are largely unfounded. For example, of the women surveyed who had completed MBA programs, only 27 percent of female MBAs found business school overly competitive. At the same time, 95 percent of female MBA graduates were satisfied with their business school experience, citing interaction with other students, curriculum and class size, and opportunity for group work among the many reward activities.
Addressing the Issues
Today, many business schools are making it a top priority to address issues that typically deter women from pursuing the MBA, and to recruit increasing numbers of female students. Schools like Columbia, Stern, Michigan and Berkeley are actively seeking to increase women on their faculty. At the same time, business schools are establishing mentorship programs that will allow female students to work closely with women who hold leadership roles in business. Then there’s the Johns Hopkins University’s Graduate Division of Business and Management, where the faculty includes “practitioners” who teach what they actually do at their “regular” jobs. This program allows the school to recruit top-level businesswomen as both teachers and role models. Additionally, significant headway in women’s educational issues continues to be made at the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan which, since its founding in 1964, has played a key role in advocacy to reduce barriers to women’s advancement, while supporting women in furthering their educational and employment goals.
Scholarship opportunities specifically for women are also becoming more prevalent through many business schools (as well as a number of professional women’s groups). Most notably, the Forte Foundation-a consortium of 17 major corporations, 24 top business schools and influential nonprofits-offers scholarships to women in full-time MBA programs at participating business schools. (You can find an extensive list of additional scholarship funds available to women via their Web site at http://www.fortefoundation.org.) The Forte Foundation is also the only organization that provides a national infrastructure for women to gather essential information and the resources they need for entering-or reentering-the business world.
A Changing Landscape
To communicate the changing MBA landscape, “women only” receptions and other outreach events are also becoming increasingly common. Attended by hundreds of women, these events focus on the MBA experience from the women’s point of view, provide a forum to address concerns that are unique to women, and an opportunity for prospective students to connect with both faculty and alumnae. And, while women may be skeptical at first, they leave with the empowering realization that they will not be alone and that the MBA is indeed within their reach.
Much of this realization comes from the opportunity to hear first-hand about specific on-campus features for women-like Stanford’s private nursing room for MBA moms-as well as social and networking groups for women. As an example, the Women in Leadership (WIL) group at Haas has the highest club membership on the campus and hosts activities ranging from an orientation retreat and annual conference to education workshops and other community-building activities. Stanford also has a parents club where students can meet enjoy activities with family-oriented peers.
Another plus for women: the early career initiatives that are being introduced at many business schools, like those at Stanford and Harvard, which allow women (and men) to be admitted to the MBA program either directly from college or with minimal years of business experience. Translation: such schools are now considering the quality, rather than the quantity of experience an applicant will bring to the program. The objective of these initiatives is to encourage more students-especially women-to pursue an MBA by enabling business school entrance at a younger age when their lives are still relatively flexible.
Women as Consumers-and Leaders
The business world is changing as well. While research shows that women continue to hold a disproportionate percentage of leadership positions in business, those percentages are growing, chiefly because businesses are beginning to take notice of statistics attesting to the fact that women buy or influence the purchase of 80 percent of all consumer goods, purchase more than 50 percent of all automobiles and take more than 50 percent of all business trips. That means companies need more women executives if they want to better understand and serve a broader group of consumers.
Still, if women are not adequately represented in the top ranks of corporate America, their influence clearly extends far beyond the role of consumer. Currently, women entrepreneurs own 38 percent of U.S. businesses. That figure translates to nine million women-owned businesses, employing 27.5 million people and generating $3.6 trillion in revenue.
The MBA’s Broadening Reach
Women should take note of the broad reach of an MBA, which is far from being exclusive to banking and finance applications. By providing the framework and tools to develop, hone and apply general management skills to virtually any industry, business school can be a springboard to leadership positions in a wide array of fields, ranging from marketing consumer goods to not-for-profit work. Thus, the flexibility of the MBA translates well for women who seek to freshen current goals, change careers or re-enter the work force after taking a break to have children. In addition to enabling more women to move into senior level positions, the MBA can also boost the success of women entrepreneurs, who can derive significant benefits-including growing their businesses-from an MBA. (More information can be found at http://www.mba.com.) Bottom line: an MBA is much more than a credential. It’s a solid alumni network, which will be invaluable throughout your working life. It’s a wealth of knowledge gained. And it’s a significant personal milestone that affords a life-altering sense of pride and achievement.
While women may still question if the challenges of earning an MBA are too high of a price to pay, there’s no time like the present to take advantage of the changes taking place on business school campuses and in the business world. Women have been blazing the trail for years-but it’s up to the women of today and tomorrow to continue the journey.
The author, Chioma Isiadinso, a former admissions board member at Harvard Business School and admissions officer at Carnegie Mellon University, provides tips, strategies and advice to MBA applicants on how to gain admission to top MBA programs. To get Chioma’s free MBA admissions report, “21 Mistakes to Avoid When Applying to Top MBA Programs” visit [http://www.expartus.com].
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