The topic about women in business and leadership has been receiving more and more attention over the last decade and it has certainly never been more relevant. From available opportunities in business education to gender equality and equal pay in the workplace, the spectrum of the discussion is as diverse as it can be.

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When talking about the work life of female professionals and their journey to leadership roles, it is important to peel off the layers and look deeper. The approach of business schools to attracting female students, the learning environment, and the collective strategy of schools and employers to close the gender gap all have their place in the conversation.

The post-MBA business environment for women

Although not everything can be perfect, it is safe to say there is room for improvement in the business environment that female leaders face today. Let’s take the salary statistics for business school graduates as an example. Obtaining an MBA diploma typically results in a significant salary increase for both men and women. However, according to a global study into the salary levels of business school alumni, the average salaries of male respondents increased more (76%) than the ones of their female counterparts (63%) following graduation.

Yet, there may be a more nuanced way to look at the results. As the Financial Times reported, “gender pay differences were partly a reflection of the industries where MBA graduates worked.” For instance, the study found that women outnumber men in the financial industry, but men in the field earn 60% more on average than women. On the other hand, the gender pay gap in the technology sector is significantly smaller, although there are fewer female employees working in tech.

What these observations tell us is that there might be a more important and complex discussion to be had, beyond flatly comparing salaries. Business schools and employers need to work together to improve the ecosystem and to provide new and exciting opportunities for women in leadership and in all industries. Both parties have taken their own measures to address the situation of women in business roles. A good direction that universities commonly take is to diversify their classes and try to recruit more even numbers of men and women. Data from AMBA, the agency for business school accreditation, recently showed that China and Hong Kong feature the most balanced student cohorts in terms of gender. As of 2017, almost half of class participants studying for an MBA in these destinations were women.

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More about the role of business schools

Professionals choose to go to business school for different reasons but once they do, there are meaningful patterns to be observed. A study cited by talent management website Relocate Global found that women are more likely than men to be aged 25-29 when graduating with an MBA degree. Interestingly, the pattern reverses for those aged 35-44 as it seems there are more male representatives from this age group upon MBA graduation than female ones.

The results should reveal a lot about the decision-making process of business school candidates from different demographic circles. "The findings relating to the age at which women graduate suggests that they are more likely to take an MBA earlier in their career, potentially before family commitments, or because they feel less able to further down the line,” says Will Dawes, Research and Insight Manager at AMBA. Business schools and employers alike need to take into consideration the multiple stages of MBA selection and how they might differ not only between men and women, but also among other groups in society. 

Professionals will also inevitably have their unique preferences in terms of career goals and motivation. The AMBA report quoted by Ruth Holmes, editor at Relocate Global, concluded that female MBA graduates believe in their ability to make a difference in society and rely strongly on their leadership skills to do so. However, fewer female respondents believed that they are better placed to start their own business following an MBA than their male counterparts. In fact, the topic of entrepreneurship is especially important when talking about the opportunities available for women in business today as the MBA can be instrumental in equipping them with the skills needed to succeed in a new venture. According to Fortuna Admissions, “starting my own business” is among the most common post-MBA goals cited by applicants who contact them and benefit from their services.

What is next for women in business and in business school?

It is true that there are many factors to take into account when trying to improve the journey to leadership for businesswomen across the world. Many companies and business schools have already made the right first step – joining the conversation and showing that they are eager to collaborate in this shared goal. As journalist Seb Murray told the Find MBA website, top universities are heavily invested in organising diverse recruitment events and providing financial aid to bring more women into the MBA experience. This effort may be especially important for the US MBA market considering the decrease in applications to some American institutions over the past year.

Opening up more opportunities for female business leaders and improving their work experience go hand in hand with limiting gender stereotypes. A study published by Harvard Business Review earlier this year examined gender stereotyping in the case studies used in MBA curricula from 2015-2017. The paper’s authors took the time to list a few simple suggestions for business school instructors who are eager to challenge this. Reviewing the language used, removing stereotypical language, and teaching students to identify stereotypes themselves are excellent approaches to strengthen case studies. “Our goal as educators should be that students from every gender, race, national origin, age, or social status see themselves as leaders or learn about leaders who are not like them in authentic – not stereotypical – ways,” add the research authors. As case studies are one of the essential learning tools in MBA curricula, using examples that are written with the readers in mind is a must.

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The conclusion of the whole story is that change can only happen when all stakeholders are involved in the discussion. It is important to take on the responsibility of enhancing career opportunities for the people that may not have had them in the past.