Helena Pozniak
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How schools are redressing the gender imbalance in business

The Independent
The glass ceiling could be a thing of the past as MBA programmes shape more women into the role of future leaders

Rabi Wada is not typical of MBA students. She’s a 43-year-old woman with seven children, thousands of miles from her family in Abuja, Nigeria. For many years, business schools have struggled to appeal to more women, but full-time MBAs remain mostly dominated by young ambitious men. On full-time programmes, they still outnumber women by eight to two, according to the Association of MBAs (Amba).

But some schools have been successful redressing the imbalance. This year, 52 per cent of the people on Durham Business School’s full-time MBAs were women. Meanwhile, others, such as Northampton Business School, are approaching an equal split. Overall, the number of female applicants at Amba-accredited schools has been steadily increasing, partly due to scholarships for women, says chief executive Andrew Main Wilson.

So what made Wada buck the trend, take a career break from her job as procurement manager in a hospital, and make the significant investment in an MBA at Surrey Business School? “Basically, I told myself I could do better,” she says.

“Otherwise, I could be doing the same thing forever, and it felt time for something new. I should have done this years ago.” Wada decided against flexible distance learning – which is often more popular with women – fearing she’d be too distracted at home by family demands. She returns to Nigeria during holidays, speaks often to her children online and misses them dreadfully. Crucially, Surrey, which boasts an average 45 per cent of women across MBA programmes, found her a mentor – a working mother who runs her own business – to listen, sympathise and encourage her. “I think the decision to take an MBA is the hardest part,” she says. “Once that’s made, things fall into place.”

Diversity is a term much bandied about in business school brochures, but some have made genuine headway in broadening their intake. They’ve done this with a mix of targeted funding for women, elective modules to soften and widen the core syllabus, and by offering family-friendly facilities, networking events and experienced mentors. Many, such as Saïd Business School, run a host of women’s networks and seminars.

Schools are actively contacting women who otherwise wouldn’t dream of investing in an MBA. Surrey, for instance, holds external Women in Business events, which are often booked out. “There’s a light bulb moment when women realise not only are they comfortable in the business school environment but they get excited about what an MBA could do for them,” says external relations manager Abi Bradbeer.

Why is it so important to balance the number of men and women undertaking business education? There’s a host of evidence showing that more women at senior level gives companies a better return on investment. MBAs are a critical link in the supply chain for credible business leaders, say schools. “Ironically in the early stages [of their careers], women are often disadvantaged because ‘nice girls don’t ask’,” says Wendy Alexander, associate dean of degree programmes and career services at London Business School (LBS), which just announced four women-only scholarships of £30,000 from Lloyds Banking Group.

In a report into the progress of appointment of women on FTSE 100 boards released last month, the Cranfield International Centre for Women highlights 100 “women to watch”. “These women distinguish themselves by their business qualifications and breadth of managerial experience,” says the centre’s director and co-author of the report Professor Susan Vinnicombe. “An MBA is clearly part of this mix. Having an MBA not only gives women the essential knowledge and skills, but also the credibility to be taken seriously in a male-dominated business.”

One of the most-successful schools at attracting women is Emlyon in France; this year’s MBA group is an unheard of 62 per cent female. Success is down to several factors, says Joe LiPuma, director of the international MBA. His programme actively sought out applicants from different professional backgrounds beyond the traditional recruitment grounds of business and engineering, where women are in short supply. Like many schools, Emlyon offers women only scholarships and ensures female academics teach on the course. “We are also sensitive to demands of parents who have to get their kids to school in the morning,” he says.

The school’s focus on entrepreneurship appeals to women, says LiPuma. “It’s a means for women potentially to avoid the glass ceiling found in corporate settings; to do something of their own that helps them achieve a work-life balance in a way they can define.” Business schools are the right venue for taking risks and learning, says LiPuma – a friendly setting where women won’t be ridiculed for getting it wrong. “I’d implore MBA women to take various roles in teams, to explore what it’s like to be on a team of male engineers, female athletes, mixed nationalities. What’s it like to lead? Push the envelope on who you think you are.”

This is a call echoed by the likes of Henley Business School, which has the highest number of women faculty in the country, with just over 40 per cent in senior roles. Women make up 40 per cent of the current executive MBA group, and particularly like the style of study – smaller, collaborative groups, a coaching and mentoring programme and a focus on personal development. “Women say they like the opportunity to try different roles, be different people in a safe environment,” says Caroline Followell, former head of full-time MBA programmes at Henley who’s written a white paper on professional gender balance.

At LBS, numbers of women academics have tripled over 10 years and now make up 24 out of 105 fulltime faculty. “Another way to tackle barriers to entry is to have a range of programmes that suit all career stages, as women tend to have less linear careers than men,” says Alexander. LBS also offers elements within syllabus that particularly resonate with women, from talks from inspirational alumnae to discussions on the importance of expressing confidence within business.

Confidence and funding are the greatest obstacles for women, believes Michelle Wright, one of only four female students on her MBA at Ashridge Business School in 2010. Now, it has 14 women out of 56. “Access to funding is essential,” she says. “Women are often less confident in the outcome of an MBA than men.” Of course, one major stumbling block is timing – when women have the requisite years of experience, they might be thinking about starting a family. But this isn’t the only deterrent, Followell believes. Women, she says, question investing in themselves. While equal numbers of women apply for preexperience Masters in management, the high price of an MBA is a sticking point. “But they absolutely owe it to themselves to take an MBA and increase opportunities,” she says. “The return on investment isn’t just financial; it enhances self-belief, personal development – and society as a whole prospers.”

Award-winning Elizabetta Camilleri, a former consultant, completed a full-time, two-year MBA at London Business School in 2000. She went on to found SalesGossip, a free service that alerts shoppers to promotions from fashion and beauty retailers.

“I’m often asked by current students whether an MBA will pay off – it did for me, tenfold. It was a lot of money to me, but there’s more to it than that. I don’t think I would have had the visibility and confidence to leave a well-paid career and set up on my own. I’d go back to business school tomorrow if I could; it served its purpose many times over. My background was marketing strategy, so I use what I learned all the time – human resources, finance and logistics for instance. LBS was proactive in ensuring men and women don’t just work on their own. But it puts you on a level playing field and it helps you pause and take stock. Maybe for women an MBA is even more important. You have the confidence to go for jobs you really want; you know you can do them. The MBA community is an amazing network of experts you can use and abuse but you have to give back as well; we help each other a lot.”

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