Gateway to Opportunity for Women MBA Holders

The need for more women MBA holders makes another strong case for business education.

Gateway to Opportunity for Women MBA Holders

As business schools worldwide compete for still-scarce female MBA candidates, only a handful such as the University of Michigan Ross Business School and London Business School truly have succeeded in raising their ranks beyond the top schools’ average of 27 percent for fulltime programs. Some European schools are still wallowing in the single digits, even as a “Financial Times 2004 MBA Survey” reveals women professors at top business schools are even more under represented than their students.

Negative perceptions of business schools and self-serving corporate careers , fear of inadequate preparation, conflict with starting families and lack of encouragement are major deterrents to women first identified in 2000 by the nonprofit advocacy group Catalyst, the University of Michigan Business School and the Center for the Education of Women at the Universityof Michigan. Their joint study, “Women and the MBA: Gateway to Opportunity” examined reasons why women’s enrollment in business schools lags so far behind the nearly 50 percent rate reported by top-tier law and medical schools.

Somewhat surprisingly, at the undergraduate level that same year, 48 percent of American students receiving bachelor’s degrees in business were women, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

After teaming up to survey more than 1,600 MBA graduates, including equal numbers of women and men from 12 leading U.S. business schools, the ambitious “Gateway to Opportunity” study shed first light on a problem that MBA programs have been struggling with ever since.

Initiatives and improvements

London Business School boldly declared itself as a place dedicated to women pursuing MBAs by appointing Laura D’Andrea Tyson as its first female dean in 2002. After Tyson garnered early headlines and high marks for the school, she followed through by expanding the number of scholarships, mentoring, outreach and netwo rking opportunities for women.

“Obviously the aim of all business schools worldwide is to increase the number of female students,” said Emma Bond, MBA Marketing Communications and Admissions Manager, London Business School. “The general momentum has increased. It’s been extremely helpful for us having a woman dean. She’s great to have as a figurehead.”

“I think there have been improvements,” said Mary Hinesly, Director of the Women in Business Initiative at the University of Michigan’s newly renamed Ross Business School. “Yet we’re not anywhere near the level of women participating as we’d like.”

Looking back to 2000, the University of Michigan Business School’s female MBA enrollment was about 20 perc e n t , according to Hinesly, who chided, “The average business school is in the 20th percentile, still.”

Currently, Ross Business School has marked an outstanding 30-plus percent female enrollment. Home to a top-ranked MBA program , business executives have called it “ the most innovative business school in the world.” Definitely counted among the most diverse, the school stresses that getting the best talent into business schools requires tapping and developing people from all demographic groups.

“We are the only business school to have this potential to inform and educate women about wh at an MBA can do for them and their life. With the Women’s Initiative, we have a dedicated program that helps support women. It’s the only one like it anywhere. That’s pretty hard to believe...

“Every school will talk about what they do to support women, but they’re not doing much more than talk,” Hinesly said. “Obviously, Michigan makes a greater effort to attract women and it’s paid off.”

Other notewort hy contenders are the Wharton School with 31 percent women and Instituto de Empresa in Madrid at 38 percent—one of the highest in Europe. Faculty report nearly 40 percent of the applications arrive from women in the U.S. or U.K., with just a trickle coming from their counterparts in Italy, France and Germany. Yet in countries where equal opportunity is strongest, such as China and Russia, women are reportedly overtaking men in submitting MBA applications.

No shortage of women doctors and lawyers

“In every other graduate field of study, there’s more women than men,” said Rachel Edgington, Manager of Applied Research at the Graduate Management Admission Council’s headquarters in Virginia. Edgington believes one reason so many women steer towards law and medicine is they can enroll straight out of college, wh e reas MBA programs often require several years of work experience. By their early 30s, women who are excellent MBA candidates overlook the opportunity because it is not a convenient time to go back to school and then jumpstart a new career.

“Men go to work and they see all the other executives have graduate degrees. Then they decide to go back to school and get one,” Edgington said. “Part of the problem is that people don’t talk to women at the individual level. We need to reach out sooner when these women are making career decisions.”

Furthermore, Hinesly believes that young women are very familiar with the benefits of obtaining a law or medical degree, while the advantages of an MBA are far less tangible. Dispelling the notion that all MBA holders are investment bankers is critical.

“We’re really out there educating. Women have choices. They could be in finance, in management, in education, in marketing... Michigan has really gone that extra step to share with women the opportunities available with an MBA. It really does propel their careers,” she said.

Not to mention that ave rage starting salaries for MBA graduates are $131,295, according to the latest “Business Week Guide to the Best Business Schools.” “Female- friendly” in demand “I know women are in demand when they graduate from our program,” Bond said. “ These female graduates are looking for companies that are female-friendly,”

To be considered “ female-friendly,” companies need to reassure women that they will not be forced to make a choice between having a career and a family. Implementing extended maternity leave, on-site day care and flex time helps tremendously. Diversity advocates will keep pushing until more companies start to get the message.

Currently, European women account for 30 percent of middle management and administrative jobs, according to the European Commission for Equal Opportunities. Over in the States, women hold 49 percent of the managerial and professional positions, but their advances are not reflected at senior management and board levels. The “ Gateway to Opportunity” study found that women comprised 12 percent of corporate directors and only three were Fortune 500 CEOs. It is therefore not surprising, according to London Business School, that European women account for only 3 percent of executive directors on FTSE 100 board s, 11 percent as non-executive directors and 8 percent of all directorships,

“Gateway” blocked

Specifically, women graduates surveyed in “Gat eway to Opportunity” cited a lack of female role models (56 percent), incompatibility of careers in business with work/ life balance (47 percent) , lack of confidence in math skills (45 percent) and little employer encouragement (42 percent) as barriers that steer women away from pursuing an MBA.

On a more positive note, 95 percent of the women surveyed said they were satisfied with their MBA and post-business school career. Their job opportunities and assignments provided visibility with senior management and the graduates felt wellcompensated and valued for obtaining an MBA. The business school experience also proved worthwhile since the environment is much better for women than conventional wisdom suggests, the report announced.

Carol Hollenshead, Director of the 36-year-old Center for the Education of Women at the Unive rsity of Michigan, put forth key strategies to counteract the barriers, including aggressively recruiting women to business schools, providing additional financial aid, developing more inclusive business school cultures, increasing the number of women professors and addressing work / life balance issues.

“Partnerships among business schools and businesses are critical to attracting more women to the MBA,” she concluded.

Corporates get into the game

Tyson, the high-profile Dean of London Business School, said, “Employers from the largest global corporations are on a rigorous search for highly experienced women executives.”

Currently, countless companies are seeking to attract qualified women executives. By teaming up with London Business School, smart companies like Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Saat chi & Saat chi and Spencer Stuart are offering generous scholarships, personal mentoring and vast networking opportunities that lead to loyalty when their recruiters come calling. Among them are Citigroup Campus Recruiter Sarah Wheatley, who says her partnership with the school’s Women in Business Club has helped to raise the profile of women in banking. “At Citigroup, we are committed to attracting and retaining the best talent. We believe the strength of our business lies in the quality and diversity of our employees,” she said.

Citigroup recently began offering four needs-based £10,000 scholarships to London Business School students interested in financial services. Citigroup also provides a hand-picked corporate mentor for each student selected, company visits and regular business awareness seminars.

Forte Foundation translates into strong support

The Forte Foundation sprang to life in response to the Cat a lyst study. Established in 2001, the foundation is a consortium of 12 intern ational corporations and 11 business schools pushing not only to boost enrollment in business schools, but with the larger goal of increasing the overall number of women business owners and leaders. Last year, Forte Forums were held in eight American cities, as well as one in London with a goal to provide networking, career guidance and mentoring to MBA candidates. “In 2003, London Business School became the only school outside the United States to join the Forte Foundation. We recently hosted the only Fo rte Fo rum held outside the U.S. on October 4,” Bond said. “Laura (Dean Tyson) was present for the entire evening. When she speaks, she is really an inspiration for the women,” Bond recalled. “And we awarded the two Forte scholarships — as we do every year — plus four new scholarships. A number of corporates are very keen this year. The trend is to try and attract women by offering scholarships.”

Real role models

Since 2002, Tyson has not only raised public awareness, but spearheaded specific initiatives for women. She has fostered a community of women students and business leaders through the Annual Women in Business Conference, the Women in Business Club and alumni Women’s International Network (just started last year by a group of very prominent alumni). Involvement is constant with a busy calendar of events ranging from dealing with headhunters to tackling entrepreneurship.

A recent alumni event featured Allison Pearson, author of the international bestseller, “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” The book’s heroine is an undisputed financial markets genius — constantly defending her status as the sole powerful woman in the firm — who finds herself hilariously humbled as she battles nonstop international travel , demanding clients in all time zones, an aimless husband, an unreliable nanny and two unfo rgiving small children at home.

The school’s latest recruitment effort centers on a lively color brochure titled “ Women at London Business School” that will be available at the end of January. “It’s the first full-length brochure aimed specifically at women. We’ve had small flyers before — a lot of schools have a 4 or 5-page flyer — but we decided we had enough going on to print a 16-page brochure,” Bond said.

Global gateway

London Business School at t ributes its success in encouraging women to its global reach, with 85 percent of the current class coming from outside the U.K. For the graduating class of 2005-2006, out of 97 North A m e rican students, the ratio of women is much higher at 35 percent — as opposed to the 23 percent of women represented across all nationalities. Looking at Japan, for example, this year 15 students are enrolled but only one is female, Bond explained. “We have such an international student body. With a total of 300 students per year, we have peo ple from 50 diffe rent countries, literally all over the world. And some are from Bermuda, Cameroon... all kinds of places”.

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