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MBA blogger Linda Chew says learning to be confident in class is part of an MBA education. (Steve Cole)
MBA blogger Linda Chew says learning to be confident in class is part of an MBA education. (Steve Cole)


In some MBA classes, women still need to speak up Add to ...

Linda Chew is enrolled in the two-year, full-time MBA program at Columbia University in New York. Originally from Vancouver, she is a graduate of the commerce program at Queen’s University in Kingston. Linda began her career at Deloitte LLP, where she spent four years in its Toronto and Vancouver offices, most recently working in mergers and acquisitions. She is a chartered accountant and a chartered financial analyst charterholder. This is the second entry in a series on her MBA experience.

At an admissions information session a few months ago, a female prospective student asked me about the balance of contributions from male and female students in the classroom. I answered what I believed – that I felt questions and comments raised in class came from both groups. What I didn’t say, though, was that this was true only in some classes.

Recently, increasing attention has been drawn to career-minded women and the various challenges they encounter. From Facebook executive and author Sheryl Sandberg’s book on women in the workplace, Lean In, to the much-discussed New York Times article last year about gender inequity at Harvard Business School, it’s a continuing discussion that’s hard to miss.

A few weeks ago, Columbia played host to a luncheon that allowed current students to mingle with female professionals in investment management. One piece of advice they emphasized was: “Don’t caveat every single one of your statements just because it feels safe.” It turns out women, in particular, do this much more than men in school, at work and even in their personal lives. I know I have certainly been guilty of this.

In our core classes, where we’re assigned into fixed clusters of about 70 people, students are generally very comfortable giving their input on cases and asking questions. In our elective classes, particularly the more finance-oriented ones with a higher men-to-women ratio, I noticed women held back more. I wondered why that was. It’s undeniable that we’ve come a long way since my mother’s generation. There are more high-achieving women than ever and more support networks to help them. Business school is one of these networks. On average, the women who choose to enroll should theoretically be less susceptible to such reticent behaviour because of self-selection. Why is it, then, that we still struggle with this seemingly simple task?

Motivation is not the issue. There’s no shortage of driven women here, both in volume and variety. Among my friends here are a media professional who wants to bring the best quality of entertainment to consumers, a future philanthropist who wants to increase access to capital for low-income communities like the one she grew up in, an ex-consultant who wants to create and build the next innovation in technology, an aspiring investor who wants to address critical environmental problems through long-term sustainability investing, and even an ex-banker who wants to teach advanced placement English classes at a private high school one day simply because it’s her passion.

Women tend to be more thorough when making decisions – and that’s reflected even in posing a question or making a statement. We pause to craft the perfect message, and sometimes that pause results in a lost opportunity. Part of what’s challenging is finding that fine balance between impulsiveness and over-thinking. There are lots of ideas of value that we can contribute, and more of it can be heard if we didn’t hold back as much. After all, empirical studies show that companies with women on their boards performed better than those that didn’t. Business school is largely a process of self-discovery and growth. As this two-year journey unfolds, I hope to see more of us, myself included, make progress in this aspect.

Linda can be reached via her LinkedIn profile.

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