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MBAs: Female- friendly, or not? Add to ...

When Marni Wieshofer and a female colleague worked for six months in Australia for Coopers and Lybrand in the late 1980s, female professionals were so rare there that they became minor celebrities. "We would go to a bar after work for a drink, and sit in our suits and nylons and high heels, and men would be scared to even talk to us," recalls Ms. Wieshofer, now senior vice-president of corporate development and CFO of Media Rights Capital.

Despite the fact that men dominated her industry, Ms. Wieshofer, a chartered accountant and 1991 Rotman School MBA graduate, had ambitious professional goals. She also wanted children. She was enrolled in Rotman's part-time MBA program and working full-time when she had the first of her three sons in 1990, and she found both her university and employer supportive, allowing her to continue her work and studies with baby in tow while she was breastfeeding. "I didn't want to take six or 12 months of maternity leave," she says. "So I told them that 'If you want me here, the baby comes too.' No one ever said no."

Most female MBA graduates aren't Ms. Wieshofer, though. A 2009 study by the Berkley Haas School of Business found that, when faced with the prospect of breastfeeding in the boardroom, a surprising number drop out of the work force. MBA graduates are more likely to become stay-at-home moms than medicine or law grads. While female enrolment in most medical and law schools has neared or exceeded 50 per cent, MBA programs continue to lag behind; typically, only 25 per cent of students in traditional programs are women.

Is there something about MBA programs or the upper echelons of business that is inherently unwelcoming to women?

Yes, says Elisabeth Kelan, a lecturer in the department of management at King's College, London, in Britain. In the March, 2010, issue of the academic journal Academy of Management Learning and Education, Dr. Kelan argued that MBA programs perpetuate biases that persist in the corporate world by teaching to "male values" − such as competitiveness and individualism − and that a curriculum overhaul is necessary if MBA schools hope to attract more women.

Ms. Wieshofer acknowledges that she worked harder for her accomplishments than she might have had to if she were a man. But she disagrees that MBA programs promote values that are innately male. "Competitiveness defines me. I don't see these things as male values."

Beatrix Dart, associate dean at Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, shares Ms. Wieshofer's viewpoint. "Is our MBA program competitive? Of course." she says. "But saying that competitiveness is a male value puts such a stereotype on women that they're meek and quiet, and it's just not true."

Although Dr. Dart doesn't believe that MBA programs cater specifically to men, she is concerned about barriers female MBA grads face once they enter the work force. She points to research conducted by Catalyst, a non-profit organization focused on women and business. In a 2010 study that looked at graduates of elite MBA programs, Catalyst found that promising women had fewer opportunities for advancement, earned less, and were less satisfied with their careers than their male counterparts. The lingering wage gap wasn't explained away by professional choices women made when they had children; starting from their very first job, women tended to have lower positions and earned $4,600 less, on average, than men. These patterns held for childless women, as well.

Dr. Dart believes that business schools have a role in shifting this reality, which is why Rotman launched the Initiative for Women in Business. The program reaches out to women who have already graduated, offering them opportunities to develop skills, such as negotiation and leadership, through workshops, mentoring and networking.

Rotman is also investigating how its curriculum could address the gender gap. "You can't really have an elective on gender issues because all you would get is groans," Dr. Dart says. Instead, the school aims to work gender issues into its existing courses. "For example, it's important that when we teach about leadership, we feature successful women and discuss why their leadership styles might differ. It's about awareness-building. Some men don't realize they have biases."

Changing MBA curriculums might not be the only way to attract more female students. Take the example of Royal Roads University, where between 40 per cent and 45 per cent of their MBA class is female. Pedro Márquez, dean of management, says that it's the RRU education model that attracts women; the MBA is designed to be taken part-time and a large component is online. "It's about making education flexible enough for women to access it without having to stop life."

Being able to take her MBA part-time at the University of Alberta School of Business while continuing to work was key for Lisa Hryniw, who is a mother of two children in elementary school. "If you're someone like me who has been in the work force for a few years, it's difficult to choose to put the burden on your family of making less income or not being around," says Ms. Hryniw, who is part of an all-female team who was recently selected to participate in a prestigious case study program with business guru Jim Collins.

Ms. Hryniw hasn't found her MBA experience to be unwelcoming to women. "I know women in my class who are more aggressive than some of the men. When we're talking about MBAs, everybody wants to be a leader." If anything, her education has exceeded her expectations.

She believes the disconnect lies in measures of success. "If I'm making a salary that makes me feel like I'm valued, and my job is challenging, and I still have time to spend with my family, I think I'm successful," she says. "You think I'm not? Well, I don't think having a heart attack in five years is a measure of success."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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