Women in an MBA program

What Women Need to Know Before Getting an MBA

Bridget Casey
Written by Bridget Casey
February 2, 2018 2952 0

I graduated with an MBA specializing in Finance from the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary in 2015. Prior to enrolling in my program, I had graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and was working for the Faculty of Engineering at my undergraduate university.

Suffice to say, by the time I knew I wanted to go into the world of business I was already well acquainted with being a woman in male-dominated settings. But even after years of dealing with that special brand of ‘nerd machismo’ in hard science, I was nonetheless caught off guard by the gender gaps in my MBA program.

Think you’re ready for business ladies? Save yourself some shock and read on.

There are plenty of female students in Canadian grad programs. MBAs? Not so much.

Women accounted for half of all masters degrees earned in Canada in 2016. This level of gender parity is something Canada can be proud of, but unfortunately it’s not consistent from one field to the next.

My MBA program’s most recent enrollment statistics indicate only 35% of new students are women—a 2:1 male:female ratio. When I entered the second and final year of my program and specialized in Finance, the gender gap was even more severe. In a classroom that seated 60 students, I was typically one of only six women.

Finance doesn’t attract women as much as other disciplines for both real and perceived reasons, from the classic refrain that investment banking is an old boys’ club (perhaps still true, unfortunately) to the stereotype that women are not as capable as men in skills like mathematics (caveman-era delusion). Whether mere perception or reality, these widely-help impressions contribute to low female enrolment rates in business school, and these low enrolment rates eventually trickle down into even lower numbers of women who then go on to become professors of business.

Less than 15% of my classes were taught by female professors, and even at the most gender-diverse business schools, roughly only 25% of the faculty is female. A lack of female instructors not only leaves female students without valuable women role models and network connections, it also leaves business schools out of touch with problematic gender imbalances in their programs and makes them slow to resolve them.

While many will dismiss this conundrum as simply ‘the way things are,’ we need to admit that this is not necessarily the way things need to be.

Vicious cycle much? The only real solution is for more women to attend and graduate from business school, and become professors themselves. So what, aside from the intimidating enrolment figures, is stopping us?

The high-achieving academic and professional world does not support mothers. Not yet.

The average MBA student is 29 years old. This is also the age of the average first-time mother in Canada.

Like having a child, pursuing a graduate degree requires both an intensive time and financial commitment. An MBA typically takes two years and can cost anywhere from $20,000 to over $100,000 to complete, depending on where you choose to study. After graduation, many students grapple with high student loan balances and focus on getting their footing in their new career. These demands affect women during their prime childbearing years.

While many will dismiss this conundrum as simply “the way things are,” we need to admit that this is not necessarily the way things need to be. And it’s certainly not the way things are for both genders.

A number of men in my MBA program were fathers, but none of the women were mothers. As women, we understood that postponing parenthood was one of the inherent costs of an MBA, but it wasn’t until I was enrolled in the program that I realized my male classmates didn’t have to make the same trade-offs—and that they likely never would. Not only were the men off the hook for enduring the physical demands of pregnancy and the societal and cultural expectations to be the primary caregiver once their babies were born, they also weren’t risking their fertility by delaying having a family a few years.

As I neared my MBA graduation, I started to apply for jobs. On more than one occasion, when the formal portion of the interview was complete and we drifted to more casual conversation, I was asked if I was married or if I already have children. It’s possible my potential new colleagues were generally interested in getting to know me beyond my academic record, but it’s also possible they were trying to determine if I’d be going on maternity leave within a few years of being hired. Legally, a company cannot deny a woman employment if she is pregnant or plans to have children, but sometimes this manifests as a subconscious unintentional bias to hire men, particularly in demanding, male-dominated professions.

Have I depressed you enough? Don’t worry, there’s a silver lining to these MBA clouds.

Being a woman made my MBA cheaper

The upside to being an underrepresented minority in an academic program is you are often eligible for more scholarships than your male classmates. As a female MBA student, particularly a female Finance student, I received scholarships specifically designed to boost the number of women in Finance. These greatly reduced the out-of-pocket costs of my degree, and further incentivized me to pursue something that I knew I had a gift for.

Offering more of these scholarship opportunities would not only reduce the financial burden for would-be female MBA students, it would also indicate to them that there’s a conscious effort to reduce the gender gap in business. This encouragement could tip the balance of the dilemma that bright young women face when contemplating whether or not to study business. Because honestly, it’s a lot easier to face the boys’ club every day when you’re not paying an arm and a leg for the privilege of doing so.

And better yet, why not earmark some of these scholarships specifically for mothers? Those women who feel that they need to choose between having a child and studying business might find the two options more compatible if they have additional financial support.

Still crazy enough to crash the frat party? Here’s what to do next:

The possibility of getting extra financial support was the last subject I brought up, but it should be one of the first that a woman considers when researching potential MBA programs. Here are a few directions for women to take as they seek to reduce the financial burden of completing their MBA:

  1. Most universities will have a faculty staff member dedicated to connecting students with the awards they’re eligible for. Ask your top schools about department, faculty, and institutional scholarships that encourage female enrolment in fields where we are currently underrepresented.
  2. Explore government-sponsored grants and bursaries focused on the same initiative.
  3. Look into the possibility of corporate-sponsored awards as well. Many businesses donate money to business schools in the form of scholarships funds, and since many businesses are also working toward correcting their own gender imbalance, female candidates may have an advantage in applying for these awards. Securing one of these awards will not only help pay your tuition bill, but it can also connect you with the donor, which can become a potential employer later on.

Once you’ve been accepted to an MBA program and raked in as much financial support as possible, make it a point to connect with a female professor or business leader alumna. Ideally this may develop into a valuable mentor-mentee relationship, but at the very least you’ll have a role model who can offer insight to succeeding in business school and the workforce, despite the challenges of these being male-dominated spaces. Ask for their tips on how to dodge those family-planning inquiries at job interviews, as well as their own insight into how they manage the work-life balance themselves.

Finally, don’t forget about your responsibility to pay it forward. Once you become the next Christine Magee or Arlene Dickinson, take the initiative to set up that MBA scholarship for moms that you wish you’d had while you studied. Keep an eye out for the level of gender parity in your own business, and fly back (in your own jet, obviously) to your alma mater to lecture and lead workshops once in a while.

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