On Women’s Day, A Mixed Picture Of Progress

Women are making strides in the classroom and the boardroom — but challenges and hurdles remain, according to two new surveys

The pipeline of talent is the main focus of the second recently released survey. The Association of MBAs, one of the three big global business school accrediting bodies, says that while International Women’s Day 2019 comes at a time of increasing women’s presence in MBA programs, there is further to go in terms of reaching gender parity. Its new report, part of a larger study that is slated to be released in April, shows that the gender imbalance in MBA programs may be explainable by looking at the ages at which women are able, or willing, to enroll at B-school. “Women,” AMBA says, “are more likely than men to be aged 25-29 when they graduate with an MBA (21% of women compared to 14% of men). This pattern reverses with age (42% of male graduates are aged 35–44 compared with 38% of female graduates).

“Given women make up a minority of graduates overall,” reads the study of male and female graduates of AMBA-accredited MBA programs, “this would suggest that additional efforts might need to be made to encourage and support women taking MBAs as their careers mature.”

Will Dawes, research and insight manager at AMBA and its affiliated Business Graduates Association, says findings relating to the age at which women graduate suggest that “they are more likely to take an MBA earlier in their career, potentially before family commitments, or because they feel less able to further down the line. Regardless, it is important for business schools to understand this dynamic and make provisions to ensure women feel they can take an MBA at a stage which is conducive to their career ambitions.”


Elissa Sangster. File photo

AMBA’s survey shows that optimism about the value of an MBA to one’s career is equally strong for women and men. For both female and male graduates, 72% are optimistic about the salaries they will achieve in the future — a noteworthy finding given the wider, systemic gender pay gapMoreover, 43% of women say that they expect to make at least 50% more in salary within the next three years as a result of their MBA, just slightly lower than the equivalent proportion of men (48%) — a finding that does not necessarily point to comparable post-MBA income, since the starting salaries of pre-MBA men and women may be different, “but it does suggest that men and women have similar projections about the impact of an MBA on their salary.”

When it comes to the perceived value of an MBA, AMBA’s research reveals that women feel its impact on them as much as men: Women are more likely than their male counterparts to say that they received”‘a lot more” from their MBA than anticipated (46% of women versus 41% of men); and nine in 10 women and men (88% and 89%, respectively) would speak favorably about taking an MBA to someone seeking to complete one in the future.

However, as AMBA notes, “it is difficult for personal impact to be maximized if female graduates don’t hold sufficient self-belief about their ability to make a difference.” Here the group’s survey suggests areas in which more can be done, by business and B-schools alike, to ensure that female grads believe they can be as impactful with their MBAs as men. Its survey found that women grads are less likely than their male counterparts to agree with the following statements about MBA outcomes:  

• “I am likely to make better business decisions” (74% of women versus 84% of men);

• “I am more prepared to work in a highly competitive environment” (62% of women versus 69% of men);

• “I am more likely to contribute toward a more profitable business” (54% of women versus 60% of men); and

• “I am better placed to start my own business” (34% of women versus 42% of men).


The AMBA found that women who graduate with an MBA have greater belief in being able to make a difference in society and to be better leaders of people. Two thirds (66%) of women say that they are more likely to make ethically sound decisions, compared with 62% of men; and nearly three quarters of women (74%) say they are likely to make their teams operate more efficiently (compared with 70% of men). In some areas, men and women hold almost identical levels of belief in what they are capable of as MBA graduates: 72% of men and 71% of women say they are more confident about themselves; 66% of both say they believe they can make decisions that consider the wider implications outside their organization; and 41% of women and 42% of men believe they are an asset to the business community.

“From expectations about future pay to graduates’ ability to resolve problems by finding new solutions,” AMBA’s study reads, “similar proportions of men and women agree with a range of perceptions about the value and impact of an MBA degree.” Nevertheless, the study also highlights “significant differences between genders that are part of the MBA and business landscape, and should be challenged or harnessed by business schools and within MBA programs, as appropriate.”

Despite progress in recent years towards more equal participation among women on MBAs, “there is still a notable gender gap on MBA programs across the world and more needs to be done to close it further,” Dawes says. “While it is encouraging that the gender mix in intakes is improving, achieving more balanced MBA cohorts is only credible if they are genuinely inclusive. This means that men and women must have equally impactful experiences and come away from their MBA with similar aspirations.

“Our findings offer a mixed picture, demonstrating that in many respects women hold equally strong beliefs about what they can achieve as men. However, they also show that there are some areas where women’s confidence around the impact they can have is slightly lower.”


Elissa Sangster says the pipeline problem goes back to the undergraduate level. “There are skill sets that you need to be developing during your undergraduate experience in order to graduate and be career-ready,” she says. “That pipeline is lacking right now. And so we need to spend more time in that college space helping women get those skills that they need to graduate and be fully employed when they move into the workforce — and not wander around getting skills in lots of different random job assignments, and then coming back and getting an MBA, and then going on with their career.

“There’s kind of a three- to seven-year window where — and this is not data-driven analysis, this is more of a gut feeling — I think women are not progressing as systematically as their male counterparts in their career. And showing up on the MBA doorstep with the same experience, there isn’t the same kind of background that makes them a viable candidate to get an MBA. So then the piece of the puzzle that we’re also working on is getting more women interested in that MBA program, and getting them over the hurdles that they see in front of them to pursue that path, because we know an MBA is one of those key pipelines for companies.

“But if the companies don’t grab that pipeline and create an environment that is going to allow them to continue to grow, they’re not going to reap the benefits of having more women in their senior leadership positions. So I think it’s really that the challenge is for the companies now to determine how much they’re willing to invest to make sure they see the equity that they are touting as important to them.”


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