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In Canada, half of the 36.3-million population is female, but look into a high-level board room or check who's in charge at Crown corporations. Despite talent and impressive credentials, women represent only about 12 per cent of Canada's C-suite inhabitants.

The Ivey Business School at Western University is among those working to address this disparity and help organizations attract and retain some of the world's most capable women to their ranks, early in their careers.

Recent trends show women make up approximately 30 per cent of Ivey's one-year MBA program. The degree helps to pave the way for anyone with strong early career work experience who wants to arm themselves with the skills and credentials that help ensure a successful career trajectory.

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"The biggest barrier for all of the world's top MBA schools is getting women to apply at the right time in their career," says Sharon Irwin-Foulon, Ivey's executive director of career management and corporate recruitment. It's key, she adds, to balance encouraging application to an MBA program with a thoughtful discussion to determine if candidates are truly ready to get the most out of the one-year program.

"We want them to be discerning MBA buyers," she says.

Ivey MBA grad Pamela Jeffery has observed a marked improvement in the percentage of women in MBA programs. In the late 1970s, about 10 per cent of Canadian MBA students were female, says Ms. Jeffrey, now a partner at KPMG in Toronto. Like many leaders, she recognizes that organizations are now putting more attention on diversity and defining how to support women on a career trajectory. At KPMG alone, women totaled 41 per cent of those promoted to partners in 2016 across Canada.

"Companies with more inclusiveness have stronger financial performance, a fact proven by various studies," notes Ms. Jeffery, who also leads KPMG's Inclusion and Diversity Strategy Practice, a program geared to clients.

When any candidate is considering an MBA program, Ms. Irwin-Foulon believes they need to ask themselves: Do I have a clear definition of what success looks like? Success often includes a strong network that will support them through their career, a new approach to decision making and new technical skills.

Knowing the goals and measures for achieving success will ultimately help candidates map out a plan for the right degree, the right school, at the right time. Ms. Irwin-Foulon recommends working closely with school's admissions team as partners to help candidates understand where the school fits in their goals.

And the best schools ask whether the MBA candidate has the maturity required to contribute in a constructive way to the classroom, and whether they are ready to engage with and thrive in the intense course of study.

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For women, questions are often more personal and include what role will motherhood play in my future career aspirations? Ms. Irwin-Foulon feels that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's mantra of leaning in, until you lean out is the easy answer, but advises candidates to be honest about the questions and their aspirations.

A question often neglected, she says, is how will prior work experience contribute to MBA studies and when is the right time? Too often she sees candidates making passive decisions based on the idea that if the school has accepted them, it must be right.

At Ivey, they have two admissions programs that they feel are making a difference and helping women candidates make better decisions: a Leave of Absence Program (LOA) and a defined Alumni Referral program.

Ivey's LOA program makes it easier for students to make a request for, or be asked to, take a leave from employers. Upon completion of their MBAs, returning to the job or organization they love is appealing. Students who have worked full-time for their employers for at least eight consecutive months qualify to receive $10,000 toward tuition costs. The LOA initiative helps address the idea of candidates at the right time in their career taking time away to educate themselves and examine their technical business skill set. Typically employers appreciate the candidate's interest in coming back to the firm, with an even stronger skill set and ability to contribute.

As for income gaps among students, Ivey also offers an extensive range of scholarships and awards to offset the problem of not earning an income for a year.

Also proving very successful are referrals from Ivey alumnae, like Ms. Jeffrey, who encourage prospective female students. In collaboration with Lean In Canada, an international community of professional women who strengthen and support each other's careers, Ivey hosts dinners that encourage networking between alumnae and MBA applicants. Alongside the networking opportunity, grads paint an accurate picture of what it takes to earn an MBA and encourage women to enroll.

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Keisha Bailey is well aware of the alumni influence. She earned her Ivey MBA in March 2015, after arriving from Jamaica, where she was a market-risk manager at the Kingston-based JMMB Group.

"What really sold me was that it was one year compared to two. And I got to be face-to-face with female alumni. [They] really helped me," recalls Ms. Bailey, currently a portfolio manager at Toronto-Dominion Bank. Ivey graduates gave her a crash course in Canada's financial network and confirmed that her goal of rounding out her skills, via the MBA, was a wise move.

"My biggest hurdle [as someone] coming from the Caribbean, was the cold," Ms. Bailey says with a laugh.


This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Edge Content Studio. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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