Men typically outnumber women in full-time MBA programs – a gender imbalance that has some Canadian business schools rethinking their pitch to top female candidates.
With new strategies, including one-on-one recruitment, partnerships with women leadership organizations and donor-funded awards, schools hope to foster academically strong classrooms with a diversity of gender, culture and employment experience.
Some efforts are paying dividends, though school officials and women's advocates admit more work lies ahead to achieve gender parity.
Queen's School of Business in Kingston has adopted several female-friendly initiatives, with women now 42 per cent of the current class compared to 25 per cent in 2012. Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business in Burnaby, B.C., with new scholarships and outreach, reports that women, at 52 per cent, outnumber men in the full-time MBA program for the first time this year.
Meanwhile, the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business in Vancouver aims to be "leading Canada's globally-ranked business schools in female MBA enrolment within five years." In 2013, women were 33 per cent of the graduating class.
To achieve its target, Sauder has set up an advisory council of business leaders, established an outreach program and announced a $2-million, donor-funded professorship for research on women and diversity in business leadership. The school recruited Jennifer Berdahl, an internationally recognized researcher on gender and ethnicity in organizations, from Rotman School of Management in Toronto.
Sauder's ambition "will serve the interests of businesses in British Columbia, Canada and elsewhere," dean Robert Helsley says. "There is a growing understanding that diversity in leadership in business – including governance – has a positive impact in decision-making. It leads to a more robust and successful organization."
He rejects any suggestion of gender bias in the strategy.
"There is no sense in which this is affirmative action," he says. "We are just trying to make sure that qualified applicants from all populations want to come here and have all the opportunities we can provide them to be successful."
As more women take the graduate management admission test (GMAT) – 42.5 per cent of test takers compared to 38 per cent in 2003-04 – the proportion of them in full-time MBA programs has climbed, typically, to between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of the class.
But some hurdles –the MBA degree's reputation, family obligations, financial concerns and, surprisingly, low self-confidence – are not easily removed.
"The cliché is that an MBA can be quite competitive, cut-throat and appealing to a kind of Gordon Gekko," says Jeff Nehajowich, manager of graduate programs at Beedie, of the "greed is good" character in Wall Street. "We are so far from that," he adds, citing a "culture of collaboration" among students and with professors.
In 2011, while MBA candidates at Beedie, Alannah Cervenko and Alice Longhurst founded the Graduate Women's Business Council, a student-led initiative to provide extracurricular skills training and networking opportunities for female classmates.
"I can't tell you how supportive they [Beedie officials] were from the top down," says Ms. Cervenko, now a senior communications specialist at Teck Resources. This year, through a partnership between Beedie and the Women's Executive Network, she successfully applied to be mentored by a "top 100" female business leader and receive three days of training from the organization.
Leah DiRenzo, senior manager of mentoring programs for the network, says she is encouraged by recent school initiatives. "Just as with board diversity, it is something that should have been looked at a long time ago," she says. "It is imperative they are doing it now."
At some schools, the search for top female candidates starts with recruitment.
Two years ago, Queen's added one-on-one sessions aimed at high-potential female candidates to its regular "information sessions" in cities across the country.
When she applied last year, Luxmi Jeyavel decided to take advantage of two personal sessions with Teresa Pires, assistant director of recruitment and admissions at the Queen's B-school.
"When you are one-on-one you can ask those questions that are totally selfish and tailored to you," says Ms. Jeyavel, who plans to resume her banking career after graduating in December. "During the second meeting was a chance to walk through my profile with Teresa and ultimately get that nod of approval."
Ms. Pires says the personal touch "is really making a difference."
Too often, she says, women discount their credentials.
"I am looking at their résumés and work experience and thinking, oh my gosh, I would sign you right now," Ms. Pires says. "It was so shocking to me that they don't think they have the math skills or the business language or knowledge to do the MBA. The reality is we teach you everything you need to know."
Low confidence is pervasive, say women leadership advocates.
"We have seen that women aren't raising their hands for the [MBA] investment," says Carolyn Lawrence, president and chief executive officer of Women of Influence, which offers full- and half-day courses for midlevel managers eyeing executive positions. "They have a lack of confidence that they are worth the investment."
Family considerations, including having a baby, loom large for women in their late 20s and early 30s as they contemplate an MBA.
Often, women try to do it all, says Elissa Sangster, executive director of the U.S. Forté Foundation, a consortium of top companies and North American business schools (Queen's, Rotman and Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto from Canada) that supports the development of future female leaders.
"They choose to stay local [for their MBA], continue to work full-time, raise children and do all that at the same time rather than stopping and investing in themselves for the full-time MBA," she says.
Scholarships are key recruitment tools.
As a member of Forté, Queen's this year offered four scholarships (up from two last year) worth $30,000 each to top female MBA candidates, who also receive networking opportunities from the foundation.
Jennifer MacPherson, a recipient this year, says the scholarship was "of huge assistance" in defraying the $77,000 price tag for a Queen's MBA. "It made the program seem more feasible," she says.
Prof. Berdahl, who joins Sauder in July, says achieving gender parity will take time, effort and multiple strategies that include hiring qualified female faculty, rethinking the curriculum and adjusting teaching practices to ensure an inclusive classroom.
Female and male students will benefit, she argues.
"It is really important to bring women into the program, but it is also really important to make sure the experience within the program is equally positive for women and men and equally empowering so they don't come out with different levels of confidence, career aspirations or expectations."