Graduate Management News

February 2015

The Newsletter of the Graduate Management Admission Council

Gender and Business School: Five Questions for Monica Wirz

GMAC’s Matt Hazenbush caught up with Monica Wirz, author of Opting for an MBA Education: A Gender Analysis, commissioned by the Cambridge Judge Business School (2014). The report makes extensive use of GMAC data to examine the prospective graduate business student decision-making process to assess where differences exist along gender lines.

Monica Wirz

MH: What do you think graduate business schools could be doing differently to attract more female MBA candidates?

MW: Business schools have a considerable role not only in creating gender parity in the student body, but also in signaling to the corporate community that such parity matters. B-schools are becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that workplaces, as well as the curricula of their business programs, are deeply embedded in traditional gender schemas, whereby the “ideal manager/leader” is still predominantly male.

The majority of b-schools are aware of the competitive imperative in attracting more women. The most progressive of these schools are actively engaged in understanding and reacting to this situation by reviewing their internal structures and hiring policies, seeking to enlarge and appeal to the female student body, and reconfiguring their curricula. 

Some of the pressing issues for business schools and prospective students to consider include:

  • Do business schools acknowledge their role in developing a healthy pipeline of women in leadership positions? This also includes equipping their male students—and future leaders—to be agents in this process.
  • Do they walk the talk: Do they have a balanced gender ratio in their own academic body, do they promote gender research and a gender/diversity-aware curriculum in their programs?
  • Do their selection processes acknowledge and value a wider array of life experiences and contexts, beyond academic qualifications and the more traditional professional experience?
  • Do they offer financial assistance and funding opportunities to attract talented candidates who may not have the backing of their employers or the safety net of personal savings?
  • Do they offer support for students (men and women) with caregiver responsibilities?
  • Are they committed to mentoring and coaching students and taking into account their aspirations, contexts, and particular concerns?

MH: Based on your research and on your own experience earning an MBA, what advice would you give a female undergraduate or woman currently in the workforce considering a graduate management degree?

MW: Be strategic in the integration of all different aspects of your life: your career is probably going to be one of the biggest and most important investments in your life, both in economic terms and in relation to your self-fulfillment.

Consider how each step and decision will affect your life today, your future development, and your chances by the time you reach retirement age. A career does not have to be linear, but whichever shape it takes, it should be well managed with the long term in mind. An MBA can be a valuable part of your investment in your human capital, career prospects, and financial stability. 

When choosing an MBA, quality is important: Take your time to research business schools and pick the best possible program. Timing is also key. Ideally, an MBA should help leverage your career to the next level: It signals commitment to your professional development and should be used to help you negotiate a promotion or a better job in another organization (including your own).

MH: You discuss in your report Opting for an MBA Education: A Gender Analysis that the financial barriers to an MBA are, on average, more acute for women than they are for men. What are the effects of this and what can business schools do to assuage prospective female student financial concerns?

MW: The ability to finance an MBA is an important concern for women, who are, on average, younger than men when they start the program.  The implication here is that many might still be saddled with debt from their undergraduate degrees and have had fewer opportunities to save towards their graduate education, both as a function of time and seniority in their jobs. Financial support through scholarships, assistantships or other types of tuition assistance are therefore an important means to support women, together with practical support for those with caregiver responsibilities. I remember that my daughter was 10 years old when I moved to another country to pursue my MBA. Even though I had no financial concerns due to a full scholarship, the intensive schedule often proved to be a challenge when trying to also manage the school run and bed times with no family support.

MH: GMAC research on prospective applicant motivations indicate that women are more likely than men to be motivated by increased job opportunities, challenging and interesting work, and personal satisfaction. Yet, the perception that women are less driven to succeed in the world of business persists. In your view, what factors contribute to the persistence of this myth and how can business schools be better advocates for women in this area?

MW: Indeed, when I looked at the significant body of data GMAC has produced over the years, it soon became clear that the myth of less ambitious or less driven women is simply not backed up by evidence. It is now up to employers and b-schools to catch up with reason and facts.  

To attract female talent, b-schools must reflect on their supposedly gender-neutral structures and identify how these conceal biases that might privilege men to the detriment of women. Schools should begin by looking at their student composition, as a predominantly male academic body would do little to assure women of their commitment to the issue.  It also calls for a thriving research program in the field and a diversity-aware program. Also, when considering the potential of b-schools as advocates for women, their role in forming leaders and setting agendas comes to mind. After all, business school programs provide a unique space to raise consciousness and impart guidance for those who will soon be making decisions in organizations.

MH: Much of the public discourse surrounding women in business has been centered on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. What are your feelings about the book and the way it has shaped the conversation?

MW: Sheryl Sandberg is undoubtedly a great role model and the publicity her book received was clearly positive in all the debate it has generated. Yet, we must be careful in how we frame the debate. 

The problem faced by women who are striving to develop their careers is not an individual problem.  The solution therefore does not lie simply in individual women leaning in—it requires an integrated approach involving legislation and public policy that acknowledges that the labor force no longer operates according to the male breadwinner model.  An adequate legal and organizational framework must support both men and women, so that they can perform their role in their private lives and in the workforce. Business schools have an unrivaled chance to stop being part of the problem and lead the way by supporting the development of such new frameworks. 

About the Authors

Monica Wirz is an academic researcher at the University of Cambridge with 27 years of experience in corporate management. She earned an MBA from Warwick Business School in 1996 and recently completed a PhD in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies from Cambridge University. 



Matt HazenbushMatt Hazenbush is a Research Communications Manager in the School Products and Services team at the Graduate Management Admission Council.