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MBAs: For women as much as men?

/ Apr 12, 2013 8:32AM / Print / ()

The dominance of men in MBA programs may be ending as universities evolve their courses to better meet the demands of women, and answer calls from the business community to produce a different kind of leader in the future.

But with MBA enrolment rates of just 35%, women are still not studying MBAs in equal numbers to men. This is in sharp contrast to undergraduate business programs where the portion of women is closer to 50% according to research by Dr Alex Frino, incoming Dean of Macquarie Graduate School of Management. Overall in 2012, there were 22,000 people in 69 MBA programs across the country.

Despite still low female enrolment rates, universities contacted by Women's Agenda say they're evolving their programs to cater to what they believe is and will be a growing market of female MBA students.

Ending the dominance of men

According to Laura Bell, Associate Dean of Programs at Melbourne Business School, businesses are increasingly seeking leaders with abilities previously dismissed as "soft skills", opening more opportunities for women

"The time of the MBA as a bastion of male dominance is being eroded," says Bell. "Leadership means a lot of different things now. People think of business leadership and they think male bureaucracy, top down, dictatorial style. But the business community is recognising lots of different kinds of leadership these days."

Of the 48 MBA students who commenced the course at Melbourne Business School this January, 37% are female. Bell says it's an increase from recent years and that she finds the shift positive. "The fact that more women are opting into the MBA world shows women are increasingly recognised in the workplace as leaders. It also shows established women are encouraging each other to get into an MBA so they have the tools to go into compete," she says.

Bell adds that gender diversity considerations are not part of the recruitment strategy, nor does the university run subjects or units specifically addressing issues such as unconscious bias. But the trend towards open discussion learning, focusing on team leadership and the rising number of female students, ensures such issues come up frequently.

Addressing diversity in the curriculum

Exactly how MBAs tackle the challenges of gender diversity is something Nick Wailes, MBA program director at the University of Sydney Business School, has previously explored as part of designing the school's MBA program launched earlier this year.

"The real question for MBA programs about diversity is: do you single it out and devote curriculum to it specifically, or do you bring it out in everything?" he says. Wailes and his team chose not to hardwire gender diversity considerations into either the recruitment process or the course.

"There was a lot of discussion about diversity as we planned the course, and there has been a lot of discussion about it in the course itself," says Wailes. "The challenge for us is to get them [students] to teach and share with one another. For the young men heading into leadership roles, it's a great opportunity for them to hear from people they work with and respect, about how often these things they may not notice actually happen."

About 40% of the 50 MBA students studying at Sydney Business School are female. All three scholarships for the program went to women.

Wailes agrees that businesses are now looking for much more than technical skill when identifying future leadership talent. "Companies want people who can motivate and influence others, who are outstanding at managing in a team environment, and who have an opinion about the world around them and their own vision for the company. All those things we used to call soft skills, but they're way too important to call them that now," says Wailes.

From MBA to the workplace: flow on gender diversity benefits

Soft skills and an increased focus on personal leadership has been part of the University of Queensland's program for some time now according to Sarah Kelly, MBA program director. She believes tackling gender diversity issues head on is critical in a modern MBA.

"Gender diversity in the workplace, especially at leadership levels, is an issue. That's a fact. So MBAs have to address the gender issue," she says. "We're hopeful this will translate through the program and into the workplace, so we can use these conversations in the workplace, and companies can reap the rewards."

She add that the Queensland MBA program addresses gender diversity through team management, leadership and ethics subjects, as well as subjects that address pay equity. Thirty percent of students who began an MBA with the University of Queensland this year are female.

Similar to Melbourne Business School and the Sydney Business School, Kelly believes the discussion and debate fuelled by students drawing on their own professional experience could help determine solutions for gender diversity issues.

"A lot of our male students have said they never would have heard this, [even though] they might be a CEO or managing 300 people, [this is] probably because in the workplace people aren't game enough to bring it up," says Kelly. She adds that gender is a consideration in their recruitment process, but they do not have a set quota or target for women.

Universities also claim to be offering a more diverse range of resources within their business schools in order to encourage more women to enroll in their courses and ensure the material is relevant, including case studies that are not all about white men.

"When I started in this game, about 16 years ago, most of the case studies were about American blokes," says Ed Russell, Director of Education at the Research School of Management at Australian National University where 42% of the 86 students currently enrolled in one of the phases of the MBA program are female.

"We have access to much better resources now. You can run a classroom where you don't have to feel apologetic about the case studies anymore."

Flexible study options

Both the resources available and modes of studying have evolved over the last decade at Australian universities offering MBAs, with most now offering part-time or full-time study options.

Many universities now offer the option to do the MBA over seven years, which works well for women who are combining full or part-time work with study, and receiving minimum support from their employers. It also assists parents balancing caring responsibilities with work. Some universities also offer the option to study online.

The University of South Australia's MBA program director Bob Gilliver says that while diversity considerations aren't part of the recruitment procedure and rarely discussed in class, increased flexible study options are attracting more female students.

"It's not about the trivial things like recruitment or if we discuss gender in class. It's that the inherent structure of the course is so flexible," says Gilliver. "The program is specifically designed to be flexible so whether someone is a high flying CEO who is required to do a lot of overseas CEO, or a woman who suddenly finds herself pregnant and can't continue with her study, the flexibility is very appealing to women."

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