As I attended an Admitted Student’s Weekend last month, I was swept away by the beautiful campus, welcoming faculty and the impressive student body. Beyond all else though, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of kids I saw running around the grounds enjoying the evening festivities.
As an incoming full-time MBA student at the University of Virginia’s Darden School this fall, I breathed a sigh of relief that I would not be the only parent trying to juggle family obligations while pursuing a challenging MBA and the subsequent high-octane career.
After all, I have two children–Donovan who is just about to turn one, and Cara who will be three in June–and a husband who works as a management consultant in Washington, D.C. Indeed, I was happy to see that there were many dads who were braving the academic challenges and market uncertainties to advance their career, but I wish I had found other mothers.
My husband and I were both amused by how many current and prospective students simply assumed that he was the one that was attending business school after we introduced our family. Sometimes we would chuckle out loud at their reactions when we would correct them and point out that I was the one who was going to take the plunge. The prevailing assumption was that a top-tier business school wasn’t really practical for a mother of two, but I think there are many reasons why business school represents a realistic, although challenging, opportunity for working mothers.
To help make this point clear, I always like to first point out the biggest similarities between working mothers pursuing a challenging career and the working fathers who choose to attend a top-tier business school. Both types of parents have had success in the workplace. Both are providing a substantial portion of their family’s income. Both are actively responsible for more than just their career. For either the mother or father, choosing to go to business school represents a similarly significant sacrifice. In many cases, these family oriented professionals are also pursuing similar types of challenging post-MBA careers, thus balancing out the overall ROI for both types of parents.
However, this ROI does not account for perceived risk, and that is where perceptions start to get distorted. Investing in an MBA does entail some risk, but there is a common perception that pursuing an MBA is less risky for a dad than it is for a mother. A B-school dad is perceived as being a strong willed overachiever who can overcome almost any job-hunting and post-MBA career setbacks. Their counterparts are somehow more susceptible to the pitfalls associated with landing the ideal job and later climbing the corporate ladder. Not only are mothers just as capable of managing the risk, but I propose that pursuing an MBA as mother is actually a risk reducing strategy to advancing one’s career overall.
I have many female friends that were just as focused on developing their career as I was coming out of college, and I had the benefit of seeing a variety of different approaches. Some women were rock stars from the start and quickly got into a top-tier business school that enabled them to pursue their dream job. For these women, family was not a primary concern at this stage of their life, and they were successful at the careers they pursued whole heartedly. Other friends chose a slightly different balance, and some got married before attending business school. For these women, family was on the horizon, but short term emphasis was still placed on accelerating their career. Then there were friends most similar to me, who chose to embrace the pre-MBA career while raising a family before choosing to hit the career accelerator and attend a top-tier school.