There are challenges in motherhood, and there are joys. For students pursuing an MBA who also happen to be mothers, the challenges are multiplied and intensified. Just ask Jenna Herr.
“In business school,” says Herr, a “MomBA” who will graduate from the University of Wisconsin School of Business this June, “there are practical challenges similar to all challenges of working parents.” A single parent, Herr is raising a daughter, Aaliyah, who will be 11 in August.
That means on top of an estimated 15 hours per weeks on classes, five hours per week on readings, 25 hours on homework, and 15 to 20 hours on major projects and studying — not to mention luncheons, events, speakers, commute times, club meetings and more — there’s child care considerations, too. Sometimes, Herr says, things don’t always perfectly line up.
“Sometimes child care hours do not align with needs, sometimes there are snow days, etc. The expenses are greater — you have to buy child care and more convenience items. You may have to spend more on eating out because there’s no time to cook.
“Something’s got to give and that involves real sacrifice. Sometimes we have to miss school concerts, or we can’t volunteer in the classroom. You necessarily bring work home with you. You try to find quality time, not quantity time — because you don’t have it!”
SCHOOLS BEGINNING TO BETTER ACCOMMODATE MBA MOTHERS
There is no available data on how many women pursue an MBA while raising a child, with or without a partner. But across the spectrum of graduate business education in the U.S., schools are increasingly anticipating the needs of “MomBAs” in their student ranks, says Elissa Sangster, CEO of the Forte Foundation, an international nonprofit that works to advance women in leadership positions in business schools and businesses.
When Sangster earned her MBA from Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School in the mid-1990s — and even as recently as 15 year ago when she worked in the MBA program at the University of Texas-Austin McCombs School of Business — it was far more common for men to tackle B-school with children, she says.
And those fathers usually had support, she adds, in the form of a stay-at-home partner.
“I haven’t been in a business school for 15 years, but when I was there, the number of women who were going through, even with a significant other, it wasn’t that many,” Sangster says. “And you would definitely see more men than women. And you would also see a lot more men with trailing spouses, significant others, than you did women with that same scenario. In terms of business school, maybe society is still not quite as progressive as we would like them to be in terms of men trailing a woman to business school.”
Part of it is economic, she says. Another, perhaps bigger, part is custom. “Traditionally, we’re just still a culture where it’s not as common that you see men doing that and following a spouse and a woman kind of enrolled and having a family and all that. Most of the women, it seems, are still showing up kind of in those years before they’ve made some of those commitments.
“But I definitely think that the population of women going into business school with children is growing. I would say in the last 15 years I’ve definitely seen the tide turning.”
EVERY LITTLE BIT HELPS
Jenna Herr, a native of small-town Iowa who earned her BBA in economics policy from the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business before going into local government, says she found the energy to raise her daughter alone and study for her MBA at Wisconsin by drinking a lot of coffee and believing in herself, following her strong internal drive to succeed. That drive has led her to the brink of an MBA and a post-graduate corporate risk management role with A. T. Kearney consulting firm in Chicago.
“You realize that this is a pretty short-term, impactful investment for a really big return in the future,” she says. The realization of what she was in for came while studying for the Graduate Management Admission Test. She also realized that as difficult as it was, she could handle it. “For eight weeks of studying for GMAT, two days a week for four hours at a time — for that amount of time to be absent from the regular evening routine, it’s OK. And I think a lot of mothers, even working mothers, forget that — that it feels big in the moment, but it’s a pretty short-term thing.”
The challenges are many: child care, transportation, time management. But she and her daughter Aaliyah grew accustomed to attending MBA events together, and Jenna had lots of help, particularly from fellow students but also through UW-Wisconsin’s Child Care Tuition Assistance Program (CCTAP), a childcare subsidy of $500 each semester that is paid for with student fees. CCTAP provides “just a little bit of a cushion that has allowed me to get the childcare that I need to make sure that my daughter’s in a safe, quality place and I can still participate in MBA things, even outside of work hours.”
With all the pressures and responsibilities, Herr says, it’s easy to forget that there are many joys in parenting while studying, too — especially the example you set for your child. The challenges may be multiplied and intensified, but so are the joys, she says.
“I think I faced a lot of the challenges that we hear about in the news and in society about working parents in the workforce,” Herr says. “Now, I am well suited to lead in a professional work environment where people are juggling multiple priorities. I have an opportunity to teach others about the kinds of leaders we need in the workforce and to shape how they see parents in the workplace. The MBA has taught me a lot about the kind of person I want to be and the kind of child I want to raise, because I’ve raised her around a collection of very smart, talented, successful leaders.
“It is incredibly meaningful to a child to know that their parent is respected. Last week I received a leadership award and my classmates worked hard to make sure my daughter was there to see me receive it. All of these very real sacrifices we make to day pay great dividends in the future. It’s a better life for us, and when Aaliyah grows and leaves home, I have a life and career that is secure and fulfilling.”