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Andrea Wheaton credits both the practical business lessons and so-called ‘softer’ leadership skills learned in the classroom for fast-tracking her dream career in the real estate industry.JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

University of Alberta graduate Andrea Wheaton has no complaints about the value of her newly minted master of business administration degree, or the quality of the education she received despite being in a distinct minority as a woman in a classroom full of men.

With the ink barely dry on her diploma, Ms. Wheaton, 27, is now employed as a business analyst with WAM Development Group in her hometown of Edmonton.

She credits both the practical business lessons and so-called "softer" leadership skills learned in the classroom for fast-tracking what she considers to be a dream career in the real estate industry. That she was one of just a handful of women in the program did not escape her notice. Nor was she blind to a possible cause for the disparity.

"Several male students in the program either had young families or their wives were pregnant," says Ms. Wheaton, noting that none of the female students enrolled had children.

"It's very clear that men can handle an MBA and have the time for it when starting a family and it is not the same case for women."

Ms. Wheaton's comments come as Canadian business schools head into another disappointing year of recruiting women into MBA programs.

The Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto consistently ranks among the top business schools in the world, yet this September welcomed just enough women to make up 33 per cent of its full-time MBA class of 2016, according to statistics provided by the university.

The early results are similar at York University's Schulich School of Business or across the country at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where the percentage of new full-time female students is 30 and 31 per cent, respectively.

Indeed, following some promising leaps forward over the past 15 years, recruitment of women into Canadian full-time MBA programs appears to have flatlined in the mid to low 30-per-cent range.

By comparison, Harvard Business School had a 41-per-cent intake of women into the school's MBA class of 2016, a figure slightly above the North American average of 37 per cent.

The global average (excluding the United States) is 38 per cent, according to the latest international ranking calculated by the Florida-based Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

Educators and researchers across the country have been trying for years to figure out what exactly is going on within the traditional MBA program in an effort to fix the disparity.

It's no surprise they've discovered a complex web of societal issues that reach well beyond the classroom and into stubborn societal perceptions around gender roles and a woman's place in the modern workplace.

In a recent report published by Catalyst Canada, a Toronto-based non-profit group that measures trends in women's advancement into the C-suite, female MBA graduates were found to be badly short-changed by the corporate world compared with their male peers.

According to the study, Canadian women who graduate with an MBA earn $8,167 less a year in their first jobs than men, they start out at a lower job level, and are offered fewer career-accelerating work experiences and prime international postings.

"There are differences right out of the gate in how men and women are advancing," said Alex Johnston, Catalyst executive director.

At the same time, other professions appear to be doing a better job marketing to women's core interests in having a sense of social purpose where they work, and seem better able to produce real-life mentors to underscore long-term career potential.

Programs such as medicine and law (where full gender parity has become the norm in Canada) are, at least in part, benefiting from that broader message, Ms. Johnston said.

"You can see yourself having a successful career – leading hospitals, universities or senior roles in government. Couple that with a sense of mission and you've got something there," she said.

On the upside, business schools are actively working to adjust both the curriculum and classroom culture to reach more MBA-minded women.

Rotman, for instance, has consciously redesigned its teaching model to address differences in the way men and women communicate and internalize information. That means everything from incorporating the names and accomplishments of female business leaders into lessons to ensuring women aren't excluded from group projects or debates.

"If you are the only woman in a study team of five or six, the chances that you will be heard hinges on your personality. You may end up being the note taker or putting up the presentations for everybody else," said Beatrix Dart, Rotman's associate dean of executive programs.

Many schools, too, are looking at new, more flexible ways to offer MBA classes to women who might be considering pregnancy or already have a young family to care for.

At Schulich, MBA students can switch back and forth from part-time to full-time studies to accommodate changes in lifestyle and career needs. Marcia Annisette, associate professor of accounting at Schulich, said the power of choice of scheduling has been particularly attractive to women, noting part-time programs typically have more than 40-per-cent female participation.

Accelerated MBA programs, which reduce the time out of the workplace, have shown similar promise in recruiting women.

At the University of Alberta, MBA students with an undergraduate degree in commerce and two years of work experience can opt for a 12-month program, rather than the traditional two-year campaign.

Joan White, the U of A's associate dean of business, said women made up 35 per cent of this year's fast-track program (compared with 39 in 2013).

Schulich, meanwhile, has had huge gains in women's participation in one-year specialized business programs, including its masters of finance (47 per cent), accounting (64 per cent) and business analytics (46 per cent). The popularity of the specialized programs may also be a result of limited prerequisites that allow younger students to apply after they complete an undergraduate degree. By comparison, traditional MBA programs often require students to have two to five years of work experience.

"By then, women are later in their life and are grappling with other issues that make full-time study less attractive," Dr. Annisette said.

For Ms. Wheaton, the solution lies less on the campus and more in the potential pay-off for ambitious women after school is out.

Business schools already do a good job connecting female students with female leaders who have achieved career success. But there are still too few role models who offer proof that women can have an ambitious career on par with their male peers without having to give up the dream of family, she says.

That sense of possibility was the only thing missing in her own education, Ms. Wheaton says.

"And that, I think, would make the biggest impact."