Helena Pozniak
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Business schools go the extra mile to discover brilliant female leaders

The Independent
Committing to an MBA can be challenging for anyone, but the benefits of increasing female uptake means schools are adopting innovative approaches that benefit both sides

As everyone knows, an MBA is intense. But an MBA, a six-week-old baby and a 24-hour commute demanded supreme dedication from Monica Shupikai Simmons. “It was crazy,” she remembers. “I wasn’t prepared for how little sleep or sanity I’d have.” Early on, she’d nip across to the hotel opposite, where her husband waited, to feed the baby.

“By the end of the first week I could barely keep my eyes open.” Later on, baby Maita became a frequent flyer as the family shunted between the UK and their home in Jakarta, as her mother continued the executive MBA at Saïd Business School in Oxford.

Like many women who commit to business education several years into a career, Shupikai Simmons struggled with competing demands, but she believes it was worthwhile. And business schools are desperate to recruit more women and knock down entry barriers, from finance through to misconceptions about whom the qualification is for. “[Saïd] was transformative,” she says. “I’m no longer thinking in terms of career positions. I’m now thinking about the impact I want to have, and being empowered enough to go after them.”

Shupikai Simmons came from a male-dominated arena of financial services and was already used to being in the minority, so she was unfazed by the usual business education mix. Women make up about 32 per cent of the MBA market and there are even fewer on executive programmes, which demand more experience and can involve residential classes. Saïd’s executive MBA is 20 per cent women. Like many leading business schools, it is hoping to increase that figure.

This year, Saïd is offering a scholarship alongside Henley and London Business School in partnership with the campaign group 30% Club as part of a push to encourage women into senior leadership roles. Many schools offer women-only scholarships, family-friendly accommodation and dedicated recruitment events. They liaise with organisations such as the Forté Foundation to redress the gap

However, though numbers of women taking MBAs have risen gradually over the past few years, they linger stubbornly around 30 per cent, which isn’t good enough, says Kathy Harvey, director of the executive MBA at Saïd. This year, slightly fewer women took the Graduate Management Admission Test (Gmat) for business school entry than in previous years – 37 per cent, down from a peak of 39 per cent in 2011, says the Graduate Management Admission Council (Gmac), which administers the exam. “All schools are trying to raise their game when it comes to attracting women,” says Harvey. “It’s complacent to say we’ve reached a natural level. We could be missing really good people but we need to be out there looking for them.”

There are pockets of good news. Harvard Business School’s full-time programme is now 40 per cent female. In France, Emlyon Business School has welcomed a class of 61 per cent women, higher than any other leading school. Schools mirror life, especially at the executive level, says Harvey. Law schools, medical schools and even pre-experience Masters in management courses are roughly gender equal. “In professions such as accounting and consulting, women make up about half at entry level – it’s around the mid-stair level they fall away,” she says.

Currently only 21 per cent of board directorships in FTSE 100 companies are women; though this is up from 17.3 per cent in 2013. “An executive MBA is a good opportunity to prevent yourself getting lost. It’s in your thirties that you really face competition to leap to the next level. That’s when women can benefit,” says Harvey. Women entrepreneurs also gain from an MBA, possibly more than their male counterparts, she believes. “The importance of seeing an idea through from conception to a full business plan, as part of an MBA project, is invaluable.”

Core MBA classes will cover areas such as raising money to entering new markets, but there are subtle gains, says Harvey. “It’s confidence building to hold your own in a class of senior managers from round the world.”

Despite a stellar career in Asia, former financial analyst Lesley Zhang from China knew she needed guidance to realise her entrepreneurial dream – in her own words, she lacked the confidence to create her own venture. An MBA at Henley Business School, with roots in personal development rather than hard finance, set her on track. The degree, she says, gave her advice, incentive and credibility – and not to mention a valuable network. She went on to win a place on a government-backed accelerator for entrepreneurs and has gone on to found Rentez-Vous this year, which allows women to swap clothing by “renting” items.

But many women still shy away from tougher business scenarios, says Shupikai Simmons, who was shocked by stark gender biases in her negotiation class. “I became aware women have greater difficulty in negotiating for salaries and promotions, which can add up to substantial amounts over a lifetime,” she says. Although salaries for women after an MBA have risen to £62,000, 11 per cent higher than in 2010, they’re still 20 per cent below their male counterparts, says accreditation body Amba. “Seeing these in black and white made me aware that more needs to be done to support women,” says Shupikai Simmons.

Assumptions and prejudices do run deep, says professor David Collins, MBA programme director at Hull University Business School, which gave three full MBA scholarships to women last year. “MBAs are expensive and an investment in a career. Such things have been problematic for women.”

He also calls for a certain amount of honesty about the nature of management and cultural expectations, which can run counter to the need for a balanced life and career. A pervading workplace culture of “single-minded, unwavering commitment” to the organisation ignores real life, he says. “Women will continue to be told stories about the world of work which suggest that senior management is incompatible with having a family. In fact, lives of employees are more complex and more fractured than this narrative allows.”

As business schools say, it’s up to them to modernise expectations. Schools such as Henley have a record number of women faculty on its executive programme, and in previous years has achieved a 50/50 split of numbers of women across programmes are between 35 to 40 per cent this year.

“Some women can consider MBAs to be aggressive and competitive learning environments and are concerned about how supportive a business school is,” says professor Ginny Gibson, deputy dean of Henley. She says women appreciate the importance given to coaching and mentoring, and many top schools have boosted coaching programmes over the past few years.

One of the hardest decisions women must make is the timing of a degree, says Gibson. Most female students on Henley’s full-time programme commit to an MBA in their late twenties and early-thirties, largely before starting a family. Unsurprisingly, part-time and distance learning appeals: four in six blended learning students are female, says Amba. But women should be considering the future earlier and plan more efficiently, even during undergraduate degree, believes Elissa Sangster, executive director of the Forte foundation, a consortium of employers and business schools that encourages women into business education. They need to lay the groundwork early, she urges: get a good internship and put themselves forward for leadership experience.

Careers services could sow the seed of an idea of management education to younger students. Companies could offer more financial support for women to relocate with families to pursue an MBA. So why should women take an MBA? While the benefits for students are often portrayed as largely financial, there are of course softer but equally effective benefits, not least the opportunity to establish a solid professional network, says Harvey. “Women tend to have deeper rather than broader networks.

An executive MBA creates an automatic alternative network that gives a serious competitive advantage.” Many women see it as joining a club that historically has been the domain of males, says Dan Bauer, CEO of admissions consultants The MBA Exchange. A prestigious MBA virtually guarantees return on investment. “It’s a way to help your career progress at a faster pace, build alliances that produce future job offers, earn promotions ahead of non MBAs and attract funding for entrepreneurial ventures.”

Impreet Natt, 28, has just completed a full-time MBA at HEC Paris. While studying, she helped to relaunch HEC’s Women in Leadership Club.

“I was working as a brand marketer before my MBA and wanted to take my career to the next level. It was hard to choose the right programme. I wanted a completely engaging experience and knew a full-time programme would hold my attention. It’s been very intense and extremely rewarding. I’ve never felt at a disadvantage as a woman – in fact sometimes I felt as if it gave me more places to shine, get involved and add a different perspective. We were all treated equally. I’ve been able to connect with many successful people along the way because of the network I formed during the course. I got together with other female students to resurrect the leadership club, to highlight the careers of successful women and inspire other students. I’ve grown as an individual and been involved in projects that I never thought possible. This is just the beginning – it’s been an unreal experience, and I can’t wait to see where it will take me.”

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