Women and the MBA

Many women claim they have to work twice as hard as men to prove themselves in the workplace, particularly when moving into senior and executive positions.

Adèle Thomas, senior lecturer at Wits Business School, says for the many women still battling to penetrate the glass ceiling, an MBA can help raise their profile.

“An MBA may give women, who feel they have to fight to be heard in the boardroom, the leverage they need to make others sit up and take notice,” she says. “Many women in senior positions confirm the MBA has given them in-depth general management knowledge, the ability to develop in areas where they can add value and the confidence to lead others.”

Why, then, aren’t more women pursuing MBAs?
A few South African business schools report that the percentage of women MBA students has increased radically in the past five years, in some cases by as much as 10%. However, many maintain that their representation has remained fairly stable, hovering around the 25-30% mark. Schools that offer both full-time and part-time MBAs report a slightly higher percentage of women on the full-time programme.

Elspeth Donovan, former MBA Director at the UCT’s Graduate School of Business (GSB), says a possible reason why there aren’t more women MBAs is that they are put off by what they perceive as a purely quantitative, analytical degree. “The fact is that the MBA has shifted from being a largely quantitative degree to include more qualitative elements. South African companies are increasingly acknowledging that soft skills are integral to business and MBAs have changed to accommodate that.”

Linda van der Colff, former head of Milpark Business School agrees. “In recent years, there has been a significant change in the leadership paradigm. The leaders of the future will have skills that were seen as traditionally female roles – strong interpersonal skills and the ability to empower people – and a good MBA will demystify these roles.”

Much has been written about the multiple roles women fulfil and their ability to take on additional responsibilities. Indeed, it would appear that women can do it all. However, and this is the big question many women are asking themselves, can they do it all plus an MBA? The answer to this depends largely on individual circumstances, but the general consensus is: yes, they can do it all, but not necessarily all at once.

Some women suggest doing an MBA before starting a family. But many business schools prefer to take on students who have several years’ experience and therefore tend to be in their mid-thirties or older – at a time when many are likely to have family responsibilities.

It is for this reason that it is vital to have support structures in place when embarking on an MBA programme. While some women are able to afford a caregiver or au pair, many rely on their partners or parents to take on a greater childminding role.

Partner support groups can also be valuable, something which Kirsten Lynch, a UCT GSB graduate, can attest to. “While we’re studying or in our syndicate groups, our spouses and partners get together to socialise, whether it be to play golf, go out for a meal or just chat,” she explains. “In this way they can appreciate that there are others in the same boat as them, which encourages them to be supportive of what we as students are doing.”

It is also helpful to have an employer who is supportive, whether through mentorship programmes or flexible work practices. Thomas says many companies are reluctant to be flexible and argues that the real measure of work performance should be outputs and not style. “Provided a person is producing the necessary outputs, the company should consider reasonable accommodation of the person’s studies,” she says.

In addition, it is a good idea for prospective MBA students to assess how accommodating the school is of women and how well they address transformation in the classroom in terms of gender diversity. “You could be in a class that is predominantly men and if that process isn’t handled well by the facilitators you could be left out,” says Thomas.

Van der Colff says that if business schools want to increase the percentage of their women MBA students, they have to play a more enabling role. “Women should look for a business school that provides sufficient role-modelling on how women can manage the diversity of their roles.”

So is an MBA worth all the sleep deprivation, sweat and tears?
Lynch says that while it has required huge personal sacrifices, the MBA has been a worthwhile experience. “It has broadened my mind; it was a steep learning curve. Things I’d never thought about, like politics and economics, things I used to come across in everyday life but just skim over – I’ve now come to appreciate how important and how valuable they are. An MBA is a lot of money and a lot of hard work, but it’s definitely worth it.”
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