Why aren’t women enrolling in Canada’s MBA schools?

Female students are still a minority in most programs. Schools aren’t sure what’s causing the problem—but they’re trying hard to fix it

 
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Sauder School of Business | Career Development

When MBA administrators at Laurentian University learned they had the highest proportion of female students of any business school in Canada, they were shocked. “It was quite a revelation that we were the top in Canada,” says program coordinator Barbara Millsap. “We didn’t realize we were really doing anything different, but it turned out we were.” The Sudbury, Ont., university boasts an MBA student body that’s 60% women, putting it among just a handful of Canadian business schools where a majority of students are female. At most schools, a stubborn gender gap persists.

Women earned about 35% of MBAs awarded in Canada in 2011, according to Statistics Canada, and there’s little evidence to suggest that percentage increased over the past five years. The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management upped its female population to 32%, from the mid-20s half a decade ago. Just over a third of the current cohort at UBC’s Sauder School of Business MBA program are women, up from 23% in 2013. At McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business, women comprise about 40% of the class. Somehow, the gender parity that’s become the norm for professional programs such as medicine, dentistry and law continues to elude business schools.

The reasons why women aren’t enrolling is a topic of debate and, at times, bafflement. Women may be daunted by the high costs of an MBA when the potential for earning and career growth is lower for them compared with male colleagues. A 2013 Catalyst Canada study identified a wage gap of nearly $8,200 between men and women in their first post-MBA job. Women also tended to start in lower-level positions and get less career-accelerating work experience and fewer international postings. As a result, the study noted, corporate Canada faces losing high-potential women to non-corporate sectors. And  Meanwhile, a U.S.-based study by Catalyst and the University of Michigan suggested women were also deterred by a lack of female role models, concerns about work-life balance, a lack of confidence in math skills and a lack of encouragement by employers.

Milena Head, academic director of DeGroote’s EMBA program, says clichés might still steer women away. Ask students to draw a CEO, says Head, and you’re likely still going to get a picture of a man in a suit. “There’s still a lot of that stereotyping that happens at an early age,” says Head.

There’s an overarching belief, says Niki da Silva, managing director of Rotman’s full-time MBA program, that the gender gap is due to timing. The period of life when people pursue MBAs coincides with when many consider starting families. But part of the problem may also stem from a need for sponsorship where senior professionals actively work to promote and create opportunities for mentees.

While the business education community has yet to pin down any magic solution to the gender gap, Sauder graduate school assistant dean Liz Starbuck Greer says there is a major positive: they’re trying. “So many more people are involved in research in this area and getting engaged and trying to understand what this means,” says Greer. “In five years’ time, I think we’ll have a way better picture of why some of these things are happening.”

Schools are launching major efforts to entice high-quality female candidates. Sauder and many other business schools offer scholarships targeted toward women, not only to attract the best but also to send the message that diversity is valued. Sauder has revamped the way it markets its program to feature women’s stories and success. “If all of our marketing material is men in engineering occupations, then it’s very difficult for women to see themselves in that space,” says Greer. “They may get the impression it’s a much more masculine environment than it is.” And the school has added questions about gender and inclusion to student surveys to gather data on what, if any, facets it needs to change.

Rotman launched an initiative for women in business in 2008; four years later, it joined the Forte Foundation, a non-profit that promotes women’s careers through education and access to opportunities. It facilitates a range of events to champion women in leadership, create networks and connect prospective students to others. It offers flexible program delivery methods, with early morning and evening classes. More recently, dean Tiff Macklem vaulted gender diversity to the top of the priority list by setting the goal of 40% female enrollment by 2020.

At the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa, the male-female ratio has ping-ponged from nearly an even split some years to closer to 70-30 in others. Staff work closely with industry associations, firms and other groups to emphasize the breadth of its program. Students can train in finance, sure, but there are a multitude of other streams of study, such as consulting, entrepreneurship, analytics. The school targets marketing toward diverse populations, whether it’s women, international students, or those with particular backgrounds. “We’ve been very conscious about going after specific markets to attract the balance that we want in the classroom,” says Greg Richards, director of the MBA program at Telfer.

Barbara Millsap at Laurentian attributes the school’s success to a few factors. Classes are offered both on-campus and online and include a part-time option; students can switch between options midstream to better fit their lives. It also has a long-standing agreement, now winding down, with CGA Canada that gives trained accountants advanced standing in the MBA program. And with tuition set at about $12,500, Laurentian’s program is far more affordable than that of some competitors.

Schools stress that concern for gender parity within MBA programs isn’t about pandering, tokenism, or just “doing the right thing.” In school, diversity in the classroom means more learning from each other, having creative discussions and building wider networks. Milena Head at DeGroote says men often ask during admissions interviews about the school’s initiatives to attract women because they recognize the worth of a diverse cohort. And when it comes to the “real world” after school, study after study has shown that gender diversity within boardrooms leads to better decisions, higher earnings, fewer ethical issues—in short, stronger businesses. “It’s not just about hitting that number in your class profile, it’s about the broader initiative of changing the discussion at that boardroom table, changing the landscape of business,” says da Silva at Rotman. “MBA programs and business schools can play a small but important role in that.”


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