Businesswomen studying for a degree of success

More women than ever head to business schools on their way to the boardroom. Yet they are still a minority on most MBA courses.

“Our current ratio is 30:70 women to men,” says Marian Iszatt-White, director of the executive MBA at Lancaster University Management School.

Likewise, at Henley Business School, only 35 per cent of students on the executive MBA programme last year were women, according to its head of MBA programmes Richard McBain. Elsewhere, Harvard Business School reports 36 per cent female MBA graduates in 2012, a 1 per cent increase on their 2005 numbers.

Other schools and programmes fare better, although not year-on-year. “In some recent years, we’ve had a near 50:50 split,” says Professor Amir M. Sharif, assistant head at Brunel Business School. However, the overall progress is slow, which raises the question of why more women do not apply.

Development of business knowledge and skills is a big motivator for the rising number of female entrepreneurs

According to the 2012 Prospective Students Survey, the four top reasons for doing an MBA are the same for men and women – better job opportunities, better salaries, development of business acumen and career progression. However, more men cite the development of leadership skills as their fifth highest motivator, while women care more about employability. “Many are in their early-30s, often juggling work and family after a career break, so they want to remain marketable,” says Dr McBain.

Development of business knowledge and skills is also a big motivator for the rising number of female entrepreneurs. Some 15 per cent of UK enterprises are now run by women and a further 10 per cent of the female population would like to start a business, but lack confidence.

“Many women initially view themselves as less competent, but an MBA affirms their right to be at the ‘table’ with men,” says Robyn Wright, principal at global management consultancy A.T. Kearney.

Some women use an MBA to plug their skills gap as they go along. “I was already running my digital marketing agency when I realised I could benefit from a business degree,” says Heather Baker, managing director of TopLine Communications and a London Business School graduate.

For Ms Baker, the benefits of an MBA are clear and quantifiable. “My company has trebled in size,” she says.

For those on the UK job market, the salaries are the highest since 2004. According to the Association of MBAs (AMBA) Careers Survey 2013, the average salary of graduates from AMBA-accredited schools now stands at more than £82,000. However, women earn on average 22 per cent less than men, even though the gap has narrowed from 28 per cent in 2010.

The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) says in its 2013 Alumni Perspectives Survey that the choice of industry and job function post-graduation accounts for some of the pay gap. More men work in the better-paying technology sector or as consultants and general managers, whereas more women opt for the public sector, marketing and HR.

But there are signs this is beginning to change. Compared to 2010, the AMBA Careers Survey 2013 shows a 10 per cent increase in the number of women in strategy and planning, and a 67 per cent increase in the legal profession.

“Some women who come from large organisations, such as legal firms, use their MBAs to kick-start solo careers,” says Dr McBain. Ms Wright thinks an MBA gives women a leg up into consultancy. “Women can lack the analytical background of their male colleagues, but the MBA levels the playing field,” she says.

It does not guarantee success or employment, though. In the GMAC alumni survey, 11 per cent of both men and women were unemployed. “Some people from my class were later made redundant,” says Helene Speight, former candidate on television show The Apprentice and owner of HR and operations consultancy Waddington Yorke.

MBAs are expensive, too – at Henley, the executive MBA fees are £35,000 – and Ms Speight thinks more women would enrol if they were better at asking for sponsorship. “Their male colleagues are more inclined to knock on the chief executive’s door,” she says.

Juggling work and family makes studying harder, but most schools agree this does not account for the low numbers. “Women are now used to it,” says Ms Iszatt-White. They find a way to cope. “All the parents on the course faced the same challenges,” says Deborah Persaud, assistant director at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and an Open University MBA graduate.

Experts say 2013 will be the year of the MBA. “There’s been a big push, particularly among the FTSE 100, for more women in senior positions,” says Ms Speight. Also, according to The Key to Sustainable Growth report by the BIS, nearly 75 per cent of UK employers complain of a shortage of management and leadership skills. This is why a management degree like the MBA may prove more valuable than ever in the coming years. In fact, according to the GMAC 2012 Year-End Poll of Employers, 76 per cent of companies globally plan to hire MBA graduates in 2013, compared to 69 per cent in 2012.