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Why Aren't More Women Getting MBA's?

By Linda Myers

Camp $tart-Up: What Participants Say
Why Aren't More Women Getting MBA's?
The facts are these: women make up between 28 and 30 percent of the students at top-tier MBA programs. That may sound like a healthy enough percentage, but it has barely risen in more than a decade. Compare it with the enrollment of women at top-flight law and medical schools, now at about 50 percent, and you begin to see the contours of the problem.

It is, of course, not a new problem. It keeps resurfacing, despite some gains, suggesting a connection with the scarcity of women in high-level corporate positions – less than 16 percent in Fortune 500 companies, according to recent figures from Catalyst Inc., a nonprofit that seeks to expand opportunities for women in business.

Getting more young women to consider careers in business is as important for businesses as it is for women, says Jane Hutterly, MBA '76, executive vice president, worldwide corporate and environmental affairs, with S. C. Johnson & Son, Inc.. "Women are the consumer. They manage 75 percent of all household finances. Having executives and leaders who understand the consumer because they are the consumer is invaluable for companies."

Women's skills are essential in any business, not just a consumer-related one, according to Janet Carr, MBA '90, senior vice president, strategy and consumer insights, at Coach, the premium handbag maker. "Women can bring something different to business leadership roles than men," she says. "They tend to be more compassionate, better listeners, more empathetic, good at getting along with diverse groups of people and at multi-tasking. Having their voice heard and represented at all levels is essential."

"Businesses are starting to be more representative of the people they serve and sell to, and that's good for business," notes Deniqua Crichlow, director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the Johnson School. "But the world is 50/50." There's still a long way to go before business schools and businesses are.

Understanding what an MBA can do
In 2000, a groundbreaking study of graduates of top-tier MBA programs shed light on why more women aren't pursuing MBAs. The study was undertaken by Catalyst, in tandem with the University of Michigan and support from 13 companies.

The study's findings included high levels of satisfaction with both the MBA experience and business careers among women and men. But the results also pinpointed reasons that discouraged women from applying to MBA programs and pursuing careers in business. Among those cited were a lack of female role models to inspire and emulate, and concerns about the compatibility of a business career with a balanced life that includes family.

"It's which comes first, the chicken or the egg?" says Corinne Murphy Christensen, MBA '02, now a global human resources leader with Honeywell. "You need more female role models to attract women to MBA programs and business careers, but without more women getting MBAs and going into business you won't get more women role models."

The Catalyst study led to the formation of the Forté Foundation, a consortium of business schools, including the Johnson School, and corporations that work to increase the number of women business leaders. Among other things, the Forté Foundation promotes the value of an MBA to young women, informs them of what's involved in earning one, and shows where it can take them.

"Talking to prospective women MBAs, I noticed that their perceptions about what business school or a career in business would be like weren't always reflective of the limitless opportunities available," recalls Angela Noble-Grange, MBA '94, founding director of the Johnson School's Office for Women and Minorities in Business – now the Office of Diversity and Inclusion – who now teaches management communication at the school.

According to a recent survey of Forté Foundation members, having a positive societal impact may matter more to women than success. But, suggested Carr in a recent talk on campus, young women may not realize that an MBA will allow them to make as big a difference in the world as a degree in law or medicine.

Comments Christensen: "Until they are out there, or talk with someone who is, they may not understand what the range of options in the business world is or how you can mold a job to make an impact."

"An MBA opens up a whole world to you and allows you to do any number of things, to work in any sector, including for-profits and non-profits," adds Beth Watson, MBA '02, a former classmate of Christensen's who is now manager of financing and investments at the pharmaceutical firm, Merck & Co.

"A lot of startup businesses like mine are designed to give back and be socially responsible by offering healthier products," notes Lara Jackle, MBA '94, whose startup, LightFull Foods, makes and markets filling, high-fiber, low-calorie smoothies with no artificial chemicals. Jackle left a corporate job to found her company because she wanted to provide busy women with an alternative to some of the unhealthy diet shakes on the market.

Non-entrepreneurial women also can make a difference within their firms by supporting such socially responsible actions as going climate neutral, cutting travel-related carbon emissions, and working with social causes, Jackle suggests.

"In today's world, corporations must do more for society because the expectations of the public and stakeholders are higher," says Hutterly, who helped lead S. C. Johnson & Son, Inc. to reduce its greenhouse gases by 42 percent and shift to using what she calls "ever-more-responsible materials for the environment." The company also strives to provide a better work life for the people it employs, she notes. "We provide a world-class child-care center for our employees in Racine, Wisc., that serves 500 children and their parents and is available 24/7, because our facilities are running at full capacity around the clock." S. C. Johnson & Son, Inc. encourages telecommuting and carpooling as fuel-saving measures among staff, and encourages employees to volunteer in their communities.

Empowering young women: Camp $tart-Up
When they were MBA students, Watson and Christensen teamed with classmates Erin Edwards and Diane Massaglia to get an intense, weeklong summer program for high school girls called Camp $tart-Up off the ground at the Johnson School. Working with Noble-Grange, they licensed the name and curriculum from Independent Means, Inc., staffed the camp with MBA women as counselors – a sought-after summer job among Johnson School students despite low pay – and taught the campers the basics of business through classes on such subjects as finance, quality control, sales, and service. "Empowering young women was our theme," Christensen says.

The racially and ethnically diverse group of campers also developed and presented their own business plans and spoke with successful women entrepreneurs. The result: they gained confidence and began to see business as a viable career option.

"We wanted to introduce them to aspects of business so that they wouldn't be intimidated or feel they couldn't do it if they wanted to," says Edwards. A former associate brand manager at S. C. Johnson & Son, Inc., she is the mother of one-year-old twins and a three year old, and she now networks as president of her local MOMS (Moms Offering Moms Support) Club.

The program is still going strong, and all four women supported a scholarship for a Camp $tart-Up camper this summer, "something we dreamed of doing and hope to continue," says Watson. "We were all passionate about getting young women excited about business and knowing what options were out there, and we still are."

Starting early with programs like Camp $tart-Up is key, because differences in how boys and girls are socialized begin even earlier, says Crichlow. "When a boy mows a neighbor's lawn he's told he's a budding businessman. When a girl babysits, she hears: 'Isn't that sweet,' but the track she'll need to follow to succeed is not articulated or reinforced. There are all kinds of TV shows about what it's like for women to work in medicine and law but not about women in business." And the lack of accurate information about what real women in business actually look like and do "is only exacerbated among minority women and other underrepresented groups," she says.

"But when you talk to Camp $tart-Up grads, who have heard successful women talk about what inspired them early on and made them think everything was possible, you can see it start to make sense to these young women that the goal is attainable," adds Sonia Rucker, assistant director of the Johnson School's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, whose responsibilities include Camp $tart-Up.

"Camp $tart-up is a terrific program to jump-start girls' interest in business, entrepreneurship, and leadership," says Emilie Liebhoff, MBA '07, who was a counselor at the camp. "Hopefully we'll see them back on campus as MBAs."

Timing is key
But an MBA program is years away from high school, and a key reason more women aren't getting MBAs, despite initiatives like Camp $tart-Up, may have to do with the timing, says Crichlow. Typically women and men enter law school and medical school right out of college, she explains. But because most companies that hire MBAs require prior work experience in business and pay higher salaries to those who have it, there is a breach of about five years between college and business school. That's problematic both for the women and the business schools seeking to enroll them, she says.

The Catch 22 for women seems to be that, if they take five years off to work between college and an MBA, they are likely to be putting in extra hours climbing the corporate ladder just when their biological clocks are signaling it's time to partner up and start a family. But if they stop working to have children too soon in their career, their lifetime salaries are likely to suffer, which may make some of them think that investing in an MBA isn't worth it.

It's definitely worth it, asserts Noble-Grange, who, as a single parent in the early 1990s, pursued her MBA and then ran her own consulting business. "The power of an MBA goes way beyond a simple return-on-investment calculation. It's also in the confidence, the courage, and the connections you get that enable you to go out there and do the things you want to do, whatever they happen to be."

For MBA programs, says Crichlow, the challenge is locating qualified women candidates four or five years after they have finished their undergraduate studies and have entered the work world. To assist, the Forté Foundation maintains an extensive database of potential women MBA candidates that it makes available to members.

Forté also runs a series of forums in nine cities called the MBA Value Proposition, in which women in their twenties who are considering an MBA meet with older women who have succeeded in business, among them Johnson School alumnae Angela Mwanza, MBA '00, now at Lehman Brothers, and Marianne Danko Diamond '93, MBA '99, at Fidelity. They talk about the value of an MBA, in monetary terms, job options and satisfaction, career advancement, and respect from others and oneself.

The Johnson School also holds a Women's Power Lunch series in which current MBAs meet such high-powered guests speakers as Cornell alumna Karen Rupert Keating '76, a managing director with JP Morgan, which funds the series. Says Keating: "I tell them that an MBA is the key to financial independence. Yes, investment banking is hard, challenging work and can be a balancing act at times. But the opportunities and rewards are enormous, and if you are determined to succeed you will. I still love to get up in the morning and go to work."

While young women must make their own decisions about whether an MBA is right for them, "our role is to show them the opportunities," says Crichlow.

One final reason that may deter some women from pursuing an MBA is the cost, even though it can be quickly recouped through higher salaries. For qualified young women who are considering an MBA but can't afford one, the Forté Foundation offers school-sponsored fellowships that help pay their tuition, including 11 at the Johnson School.

Adrienne Martinez, MBA '08, a Forté fellowship recipient at the Johnson School, says, "The financial support of the school on behalf of the Forté Foundation has helped alleviate some of the financial burden of my education and enhanced my experience." Now president of the Women's Management Council, a student group, Martinez adds, "I feel assured we'll see more women MBAs because of the active role and continued commitment of the foundation and the school."

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Camp $tart-Up: What Participants Say

Jade, a junior at a Westchester, N.Y., high school who attended Camp $tart-Up this past summer, says: "It was one of the most amazing academic and social experiences. It showed me that business is more than the stereotypical image of men with briefcases. From a very young age, I've wanted to go to law school to work in a law firm. However, after being exposed to the behind-the-scenes business world, my new goal is to get a law degree and an MBA in a joint program. This will open many more opportunities for me."

Camp $tart-Up participant
Sylvie, a high school senior from upstate New York who also attended Camp $tart-Up last summer, reports: "Business had never really entered my mind as a career option before. I'm embarrassed to admit that I had a stereotype from movies of what business was like – portly, balding men in expensive tailored suits shouting at their secretaries, constant board meetings, a lot of slideshow presentations, those long diplomatic tables, high stress, big money, no family time, stabbing friends in the back if it meant sealing a deal. I hadn't ever really thought about women being in business. Needless to say, Camp Start-Up changed everything for me. Being exposed to the processes behind a business, like writing up a business plan, or the collaboration that produces a valid idea for a business, all of those things really changed my entire perspective for the better."

Camp $tart-Up participant
"Camp $tart-Up was a great experience," reports Jennifer, a high school sophomore from a town near Boston who attended last summer. "I learned that starting my own business, which is what I now want to do, requires a lot of time, hard work, determination, and commitment. Since Camp $tart-Up I am more confident about taking control and being a leader, which is what an entrepreneur needs to be."