Leveling the C-Suite Seesaw: The Rise of Women MBAs

women-mbasMBA programs might hold a reputation as the exclusive domain of the masculine persuasion, but as time moves forward, so too does gender equality. Women may graduate with around 60% of the total bachelor’s and master’s degrees these days, but have yet to fully close the gap in b-school.

2012 saw the number of female applicants rise to 39% of the total, as compared to 35% the previous year. Executive programs experienced an increase from 27% in 2011 to 37% in 2012, while at least four other MBA types boasted numbers above 40%. Women comprise 44% of flexible programs, 43% of online and distance, and 41% of both part-time self-paced and part-time lockstep. For females hoping for a chance at attending graduate-level business school, the outlook seems mostly positive.

Girls Infiltrating the Boys’ Clubhouse

Every concentration also experienced an increase, with 71% of marketing and communication programs reporting a surge in popularity among females between 2011 and 2012. Fifty-seven percent of accounting MBAs and 54% of both finance and IT management also state that the number of female applicants rose within the past year. Masters in Management programs experienced the least amount of growth, with only 48% reporting an increase. But 2012 also saw 16% of Masters in Management degree plans witness a decrease. In the United States, MBAs remain the most commonly-conferred master’s degree for both men and women. Business administration and management made up 11.4% of the total master’s degrees earned by female grad students in the 2011-2012 school year, followed by 5.1% for education and 4.2% for social work.

Dr. Tracy Wilen-Daugenti, the Vice President and Managing Director of the Apollo Research Institute and author of Society 3.0: How Technology is Reshaping Education, Work and Society, and Women Lead: Career Perspectives from Workplace Leaders, believes that now is a markedly improved time for female students pursuing their MBAs. While researching Women Lead, she noted that both men and women equally consider higher education essential to executive success. Today’s aspiring career woman knows that “an MBA is quickly becoming the new standard for most managerial jobs.”

“We found in our book Women Lead that women don’t view hurdles as obstacles, but rather as opportunities, and I think optimism is a key leadership skill that women bring to the table,” she continues. Dr. Wilen-Daugenti’s personal experiences as a female executive mostly reflected the same problems faced by her male counterparts. Layoffs, moves, and technology shifts do not discriminate along gender lines.

Jennifer Mackin, who holds an MBA from Vanderbilt University and currently serves as President and CEO of The Olive Group, agrees. “I don’t have struggles that are unique to being female that I’m aware of. I seem to struggle with the same things male CEOs do.” But she doesn’t pooh-pooh the notion of a “man’s world,” either.

“There are groups of men that still operate and conduct business in their clubs. I don’t feel that I need their business or need to be ‘in the club’ to get their business. However, I think there are other clubs that have popped up that are as equally hard to get into if I don’t have much in common with them. They aren’t just male, but equally cliquish.”

For Dr. JoAnna Williamson, a former Proctor & Gamble Vice President and current professor at Franklin University, the isolation some female MBAs, managers, and executives face reflect the concept of The Other. “There are always laggers and early adopters in terms of any idea, and so the early adopters are more comfortable than the laggers would be about the changing demographics of our society,” she explains.

Female MBA students hoping to avoid feeling locked out should pursue opportunities with early adopters and their followers. Extensive networking and research should reveal which companies embrace gender diversity and which prefer more patriarchal approaches. Although the issues might not necessarily be as widespread over time, that doesn’t indicate they’ll dissolve entirely.

Still, Some Challenges

One of the major setbacks plaguing current and future businesswomen today is the pay discrepancy between them and their male counterparts. Female MBA graduates earn only 93.2 cents for every dollar a man makes. It stands to reason that this unfortunate phenomenon may leave many ladies hoping to pursue such a degree feeling discouraged, motivating them to alter their academic plans in kind. But they shouldn’t make that the sole determining factor when deciding whether or not to apply. Considering 68% of MBA students landed a job before graduation in 2012, and 96% of graduates between 2000 and 2012 were employed, the employment outlook for the whole of this demographic remains positive.

Although men are statistically more likely to own their own businesses over women (8% to their 5%), the employment rate for both stands at exactly equal. So while the gendered wage gap undeniably requires addressing at multiple levels, landing a job before or shortly after completing an MBA ought not concern the female student. Hiring more women greatly benefits employers, in fact, since companies with female executives perform 26% better on the ROI than those with an exclusively male environment.

“Women outperform men on key 21st-century leadership competencies such as communicating, networking, coaching, organizing people, thinking creatively, and solving problems. Women also score higher than men on traits such as empathy, transparency, and inclusiveness that are essential in today’s work environments,” asserts Dr. Wilen-Daugenti. Such traits likely contribute to a better-balanced office, which leads to scoring higher on the ROI as a result. 

On an international level, the United States falls between Asia and Europe when increasing the number of women enrolling in one-year, full-time MBA programs. Each continent surveyed reported more female candidates in 2012 than 2011, with Asia’s staggering 77% uptick as the global leader. The US enjoyed a 47% increase, while Europe’s number of women applicants only rose 32%.

When it comes to advancing women in business, China stands poised to emerge as the world’s leader. Though second only to the United States in terms of how many female students sign up for the GMAT, claiming 64% of the total, more Chinese women hope to someday land an executive position — 76% compared to 52%, owing largely to laws prohibiting more than one child. But Taiwan, Vietnam, and Thailand are also experiencing a surge in the number of women who find the MBA track an appealing option. Fifty-nine percent of 2010’s GMAT takers in Vietnam were women, as were 58% in Thailand and 57% in Taiwan.

Curiously, though, 82% of female GMAT examinees in China prefer sending their scores to American schools. In fact, 13 out of 14 schools affiliated with the Forte Foundation noted that the majority of their international women MBA students hailed from either China or India. Both nations currently wring their hands over brain drain. 87,000 Chinese attained American citizenship in 2012. Indian colleges and universities only contribute to 3.5% of the world’s total body of academic research. Unless these patterns reverse — and in India’s case, evidence exists supporting a mass homecoming for its students abroad — it stands to reason that the increasing number of female MBAs might find themselves part of the phenomenon. However, most of the brain drain statistics revolve largely around STEM fields.

Closing the Gaps

Generous networking and outreach opportunities exist for female MBAs these days, providing several possible outlets for positive change and a chance to strengthen America’s competition internationally. Organizations such as MBA Women International and Black MBA Women allow b-school-minded ladies a chance to band together and voice concerns unique to them. Rather than floundering through their struggles alone, these groups grant them a support structure comprised of others who know exactly what they experience regularly.

Even before graduation, some schools provide chances for the traditionally marginalized female demographic to establish a more equitable standing. University of Pennsylvania serves as the best example of a school ensuring their lady students see their needs met. At 45%, they boast the highest concentration of female MBA candidates than anywhere else in the United States; three different UPenn initiatives reach out to women with varying resources and activities designed to guide and inspire them, which other schools should strive to emulate.

Its Wharton Women in Business holds career fairs as well as an annual conference, coffee talks around the world, and awards for notable graduates. The Forte Foundation, which it co-founded, is a nonprofit devoted to encouraging more women to pursue MBAs through educational webinars, podcasts, videos, blogs, and other events. Local businesses and schools partner up in order to illustrate how gender parity benefits a work environment rather than compromises the masculine stranglehold. Finally, Wharton also established a close relationship with 85 Broads, a self-described “global network of 30,000 trailblazing women” their female MBA students may consult with, learn of internship and employment opportunities, and perhaps find (and even eventually become)a valuable mentor.

But extracurricular outreach does not provide the only conduit for supporting female b-school attendees. The Boston-based Simmons College, a traditionally female-oriented institution, offers only MBA programs designed exclusively for women. Regardless of what majors students choose or whether they opt for the part-time, flexible, or full-time plans, the curriculum fully integrates training on best navigating issues unique to females in business. Emphasis is placed on how to turn setbacks into leadership skills and personal strength. Until the business world catches up and the glass ceiling finally smashes rather than cracks, opportunities like those Simmons designed remain viable projectiles.

Where Will Women Go from Here?

Experts believe the business world might catch up. But that doesn’t guarantee the full range of opportunities at every academic or employing institution — a reality with which all women entering and exiting MBA programs must contend.

“That glass ceiling seems to have shattered almost, but what happens if we get a female president? Or the first female vice president? I believe we’re going to see that happening within the next twenty to twenty-five years, or sooner, and with this great thing … it will also bring another form of the glass ceiling,” says Dr. Debra Petrizzo, a lead MBA faculty member of Franklin University. “There will be a portion of people that will not accept it, and with that will come maybe a closing again. Some of what we’ve gained will be lost in a way.”

“I think the bar will continue to get higher and higher, and that means that people will have to struggle to climb higher. When I say that there will always be laggers and always be early adopters … I believe that that curve will always be there, and so the answer to whether it will ever end, in my marketing opinion, is no. That’s the nature of the adoption curve, and I’m not seeing any indication of that changing anytime soon,” adds her colleague Dr. Williamson.

Dr. Wilen-Daugenti’s opinions take on a comparatively more utopian tone.

“In terms of generations, we … found differences between Generation X and Millennials. For example, Millennials were gender agnostic in our research – in other words they don’t have a gender lens; they are merely seeking good leaders. The younger generations are more inclined to pursue alternative career and job options rather than endure unfavorable situations.”

Her research for Women Lead reflects positively on the possible future of female MBAs. “I think women will define new business models, and excel in any area they choose.”

Created by: MBAOnline.com

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