A Word from the Associate Dean: Women and the MBA

By Ashok Som, Program Director of the Global MBA

At present, almost half of the people who take the GMAT are women. However, they account for only about 30% of enrollment in MBA programs. This statistic holds true both in the US and abroad; in 2010-2011 in the US women earned 34% of the degrees from the top ten schools, and in the top ten non-US schools, they earned 30.7 %While this statistic represents an improvement over the last several decades, a gender imbalance clearly still remains.

Causes for this imbalance are multiple. Many women report seeing business school as a male-dominated environment, both in terms of faculty and fellow students, where they won’t feel welcome. They also report a lack of female role models and business leaders.  As for all MBA candidates, the steep cost of MBA programs is a major concern, and studies show that it is of particular concern to women. Other business degrees in finance or accounting for example are often much more affordable, and boast larger percentages of female degree-holders accordingly. On a personal and family level, many women at the right age for a post-experience MBA are also at an age where they may be more likely to choose to start a family, and choosing to make a major career investment right at that point in time may seem counter to that goal. Research also indicates that women are less likely to want to make major career changes around the age of 30, when a post-experience MBA is appropriate, and so less likely to consider an MBA as the right path. And in many cultures, men do not traditionally have domestic roles. This means that women who want to pursue a professional career often have to perform double—duty, managing a household and a family in addition to their academic and professional pursuits. This can put them at a disadvantage next to male counterparts.

While these concerns and reasons have credence, these patterns and conceptions will never change if more women don’t enter into business education. Regarding plans for family, many women pursue MBA’s in order to give themselves the career advantage that they will need in order to re-enter the workplace after taking time off for kids. In terms of dealing with cost, most schools offer scholarships and financing options, many specifically geared toward encouraging women to join their intakes. Without overcoming or finding a way around these roadblocks to business education, the gender imbalance will persist, and unfortunately, the gender imbalance in business education translates directly into a gender imbalance in the work-place, post-degree.

In general female MBA’s earn an average of 4,600 dollars less than their male counterparts, even when industry, location, etc. are the same. Without these factors being equal, the gap is even more disparate, with women earning 48% less than men.  Similarly, female MBA grads receive half as many job offers as their male counterparts, despite sending out 20% more applications. And women make up less than 15% of CEO positions with Fortune 500 companies. And in Europe, where the labor force is 45% female, women average only 11.9% leadership when it comes to companies’ boards of directors. That percentage is 9.9% in the Americas, 6.5% in the Asia-Pacific region, and only 3.2% in the Middle East and North Africa.

Why? In general, women are drawn more to particular industries, such as consumer goods, health care, retail, non-profit and government, whereas men are more likely to pursue consulting, energy, investment banking, private equity, and IT. Also, many women choose to enter more creative fields, like marketing and public relations. In this sense, they may be prioritizing a workplace environment or an ability to pursue personal interests or passions, in doing so often compromising a competitive salary and the possibility of rapid promotion.

The good news is that the trend is changing. Though the gender balance remains unequal, it is slowly evening out. In 2013, 39% of Harvard Business School’s class will be female, its highest percentage ever. More and more women take the GMAT each year, and while they have moved in large numbers toward medical and law school in recent years, they are now looking to business school, in large part because of these recruiting and scholarship efforts on the part of schools to remedy the shortage. Many schools, in an effort to encourage gender diversity and make the decision to go to business school easier, offer female applicants scholarship opportunities and are even adapting their programs to be more appealing to business women.

In addition to scholarships offered by schools themselves, women can apply for scholarships through professional women’s organizations such as the following:

American Business Women’s Association (ABWA)
Business Professional Women (BPW Foundation)
American Association of University Women Education Foundation

Once admitted, women should take advantage of the different organizations that exist to provide networking, mentoring,  and leadership opportunities, as well as general professional support. Building confidence in female MBA students is essential for their business school and professional success, and should be a focus for top programs that want to make strides toward eliminating the gender bias that can hinder women from achieving the same levels of success as their male colleagues and fellow students.

Another encouraging movement taking place in some parts of the world is the effort by certain governments to set quotas for women leaders in certain management roles. This creates more positions and opportunities that require female candidates equipped with the training and skill set that an MBA provides. These strategies, often called either positive discrimination (programs that set quotes) or affirmative action (meritocratic programs that seek to remove traditional barriers), are certainly controversial in many places, but are helping to make strides in increasing the number of women in leadership roles. Also, a study performed in 2011 at Harvard showed that the adoption of female representation quotas in India both increased female leadership and resulted in reduced gender discrimination in the long-term. On a political level, Mozambique, Rwanda, and South Africa have all obtained the UN-established goal of having 30% female representatives in decision-making bodies. In the United States, that number is only 17%, and in Japan just 11.3%. In 2003, Norway made waves when it imposed a 40% corporate board gender quota for public companies. The process of filling the quota was supported by business groups, and this process has served as a model for other countries who have imposed quotes since in the business world: Spain, France, Iceland, the Netherlands. Voluntary gender quotas have proved less successful, but they still occur. This means that there are more seats in boardrooms and more job titles in upper management than ever before that are waiting to be filled by a new generation of MBA-educated, ambitious, and intelligent women, capable of exacting the influence needed to change gender bias, stereotypes, and prejudices in the business world of tomorrow.

At ESSEC, we have recognized that steps need to be taken in companies and business schools alike to address the issue of gender parity. In 2011, ESSEC launched the program Women Be European Board Ready, under the direction of Viviane de Beaufort, to offer specialized training to high-potential female employees to prepare them for operational, administrative, and executive board positions. Seminars occur over the course of five months and is based on dialogue between professors, practitioners, and women with first-hand experience in upper management roles. This program has been created in partnership with Middlenext, a French business association, and aims to create the managerial diversity that is needed both for a representative variety of viewpoints in executive decision-making, and for creating a level playing field for the young female professionals and business students that are currently climbing the proverbial ladder. The program is also supported by ESSEC au FĂ©minin, a group of ESSEC alumni that further initiatives to promote a better work-life balance, and which is also an excellent resource for female students at ESSEC.

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