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Why aren’t there more women at business school?

2 October 2015

The article at a glance

More female students than ever before will start this year’s MBA programme at Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS). The new cohort of c.160 …

More female students than ever before will start this year’s MBA programme at Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS). The new cohort of c.160 will include about 60 women – at 37 per cent, that’s higher than any of Europe’s other top 10 business schools and a significant improvement on Cambridge Judge’s own recent level of 30 per cent. Here we talk to recent graduates about their experiences at b-school, and look at what Cambridge is doing to promote gender diversity.

Two female MBAs

“I chose Cambridge because of its diverse student body and it was the best year of my life,” says Lily Huang, who graduated this year with a Cambridge MBA. “As a female student I was in a slight minority but it was never an issue for me or, as far as I could see, for any of my male fellow students.”

The figure has undoubtedly been boosted by a raft of new initiatives to increase female student numbers – but it is also a clear indication that women find Cambridge Judge the ideal base from which to plot the next stage of their careers.

Another graduate, Lara San Gil, agrees. “Cambridge was a fantastic experience – my mindset was that it was an equal environment full of equal opportunities. I wanted to take my career to the next level and saw Cambridge Judge as a school of intellectual standing that would enable me to fast-track my career. It certainly did that.”

Gender diversity on the MBA

Even so, there is a strong sense that MBA courses could and should attract more women. “We as a society still need to make changes in thought, in word and in deed,” said Dame Sandra Dawson, KPMG Professor Emeritus of Management Studies and former Dean of Cambridge Judge Business School. “Those deeds don’t earn long-term gain unless we also change our thought and mindset.”

Cambridge Judge is certainly doing that. Dame Sandra recently addressed a Conference to mark the launch of the new Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) at Cambridge Judge. At the same event, current Director of CJBS Christoph Loch announced a commitment to raise the percentage of the School’s female students – evidenced in the latest cohort. Loch also highlighted the School’s sponsorship of Business Weekly magazine’s new Female Entrepreneur of the Year Award and a formal partnership with the 30% Club to sponsor scholarships for female students on the MBA, Executive MBA and the new Master’s in Social Innovation programme. The School has also recently recruited four new senior female faculty members and Dr Jane Davies has just become its MBA programme’s first female director.

Changing aspirations

Many argue that female representation at the top of business can only really accelerate when more women choose to aim for the boardroom – and that will only happen when they believe they have the same chance of success as men. Or, as Brenda Trenowden, global chair of the 30% Club, neatly put it at the WLI conference, when business removes the “glass wall” that sees men riding smoothly up the escalator of promotion while women trudge up the stairs.

Aspiration and inspiration could arguably kick in earlier, too – a British government report earlier this year revealed just five per cent of sixth-form female pupils took business studies A-levels, and only one in 200 studied accounting and finance. Girls routinely make up 75 per cent of students taking psychology and language A-levels, but only 30 per cent of those taking business-linked subjects.

But women, says Lily Huang, can also help themselves. “I think the kind of women who decide early on they want a business career is quite a unique pool,” she adds, “and I think that’s because women create their own glass ceilings. When you take an MBA, for instance, that’s the sort of age when you might be looking to have children. Although I should add one of the women on our programme had a three-month old child when she started and Cambridge Judge made it very straightforward for her to study.”

Huang – whose MBA encouraged her to switch from a previous career as manager at US-based online tea company Davidstea to working in Taipei as a management associate at global supply chain company Li & Fung – is also aware that outside the School, there are those who can pigeon-hole the roles of women in business.

“During the MBA programme we got put into study groups and while most had two women, I was the only female in mine. I found myself taking on the role of making sure all these A-type personalities wouldn’t combust. I know it was my personality, not my gender, that made me do that, but maybe someone looking in from the outside might have thought ‘that group needs a woman to fulfil that role of peacekeeper’ – even though it could just as easily have been a man who did it.”

Creating communities

Fellow graduate Lara San Gil, a Spanish marketing & PR manager for US internet branding company IAC, who plans to use her MBA skills to launch a lingerie business, believes women themselves hold the key – by supporting other women both in study and the workplace.

“There is a lot that could be done in terms of mentoring, fostering, nurturing women, and encouraging female entrepreneurs. Cambridge and the School are full of opportunities for men and women but there are other reasons so few women MBA graduates go onto executive roles in business. Many come out of business school in their late 20s and early 30s and then have to prioritise their life choices in a way that men don’t. It’s complex.”

Huang welcomes Cambridge Judge’s new women-led initiatives and, although she insists there were “no barriers” to her opportunities, believes more solutions are out there – agreeing with San Gil that women can help each other.

“I do think it would be a good idea to have some sort of female student database to create a support network – like a buddy system,” she says. “Lots of business schools, including Cambridge, can say they have women’s clubs or societies. That’s extremely positive, but some women are uncomfortable with that. They don’t want to be part of a big group that is defined by their gender. A one-to-one system would be much better.

“Cambridge is a place of opportunity, and such a great space in which to learn. It has changed my professional and my personal outlook and given me skills to develop a really successful business career. I am delighted that it is offering more women the opportunity to do the same.”