To Close the Gender Gap, It’s a Matter of Degrees

“Age and stage” issues drive decisions for women considering an MBA

The essentials

In Canada, women fill roughly 35 percent of all management positions and just under 25 percent of senior management positions. According to one study, women hold only 16 percent of board seats at Financial Post 500 companies; 40 percent of companies have no female board directors.

With her engineering background, Christina Waters thought she would have to invest 20 years establishing herself before getting a high-impact management position. She was only six years into her career, though, and looking to speed up her progression. She figured a Queen’s MBA would do the trick, but then doubts began to creep in.

“I had to get over the impostor syndrome,” says Waters, now a marketing and business development professional at GE Power and Water. “There’s this voice that says, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’”

In the end, Waters worked through her self-doubts and took the MBA plunge, much to her delight. “It was interesting talking to some of the other females in the program because you get to really know them in that one-year experience. We all went through this. We all hesitated. We all didn’t really believe we could do it for whatever reason. I was glad I had that support network.” 

It is a common refrain that Gloria Saccon, director of Queen’s Executive MBA, hears often when she conducts information sessions with alumni. “The guys talk about confidence but the women bring it up sooner.” For many, she says, developing a “humble confidence” is the biggest gift of completing an MBA. “It’s the ability to converse with other functional areas of the organization, add value to that conversation, and extract what they need to make their strategic decisions,” Saccon says. “The ability to be more nimble and adapt in a very fast-paced business environment.”

“The guys talk about confidence but the women bring it up sooner” 

In Canada, women fill roughly 35 percent of all management positions and just under 25 percent of senior management positions. According to one study, women hold only 16 percent of board seats at Financial Post 500 companies; 40 percent of companies have no female board directors.

The MBA has long been seen as a key enabler to boost these numbers, both for early- and mid-career women. Business schools are working hard to make their programs more flexible to attract a greater number of female applicants, ever mindful of “age and stage” issues. 

“The full-time MBA individuals tend to be in their late 20s and early 30s, some married and some single, the minority with families,” says Saccon. “With the EMBA, fast forward 10 or 15 years, and you’re working with people in senior management positions, have significant professional and personal commitments, raising young children or teenagers or looking after aging parents. For women, it can be complicated when they’re raising families. It’s a different conversation we’re having with them.”

Queen’s School of Business offers four MBA programs: a full-time MBA program in Kingston; an Accelerated MBA for those with an undergraduate business degree; an Executive MBA; and the Cornell-Queen’s dual degree EMBA.

In Queen’s full-time program, 42 percent are women, while in the EMBA program female representation is 22 percent. Saccon says there are three challenges for women considering an MBA program: achieving work-life balance; financial constraints; and return on investment, or “will this help me to get to where I want to go?”

For many women with families, choosing to pursue an MBA is less an individual decision than a family decision

Family issues loomed large for Raman Gakhal, IT Manager at TD Bank Group. Most TD executives have a graduate-level degree, and a mentor suggested to Gakhal that she consider an MBA to advance her career. “My husband and I really had to sit down and consider whether it was a good choice for me,” she says. “I was in my late 30s, and it was a case of either do it now or not do it at all.”

Gakhal started the Cornell-Queen’s EMBA program when her first daughter was just eight months old. Two months into the program, she learned she was expecting a second child. Gakhal forged ahead, though, making sure the support systems on the home front were in place. She hired a nanny to care for the baby during the day and prepare dinner, and her husband looked after the family on the weekends. She studied every weekday morning from five to seven when it as quiet.

“I’d do it again,” says Gakhal. “I would maybe take the EMBA before I had kids, but if this were my situation, I’d still do it.”

Saccon sees organizations being more proactive in bringing women into senior leadership positions and making allowances for those pursuing a graduate degree. “They understand that there’s more on the shoulders of someone who is in an EMBA program and that employee has a hard stop at 5 p.m.,” she says.

A small number of organizations offer financial assistance as well (see sidebar below); in the case of the Queen’s EMBA, at most 25 percent of students have part of their tuition covered by their employers. “The full ticket is rare,” says Saccon, “but even if it’s half and the employer says, ‘Take the time you need for classes on our time,’ that’s golden. At least they have some skin in the game.”

Women who have passed through the Queen’s MBA programs emphasize the support Queen’s provides in the way of tools, resources, and advice. They also highlight the importance of support from other women in the program and, particularly in the EMBA program, peer-to-peer learning.

That was certainly the case for Christina Waters. Her MBA experience “allowed me to go from my old company, a $500 million revenue a year firm, to GE’s $2 billion per year Water business, and currently to GE’s Power & Water headquarters in Schenectady (NY) to be a strategic marketing leader of a $26 billion business.” 

“It’s amazing that you don’t know what doors aren’t open to you until you go into this program and see how your thinking changes and how you change as a person and start believing in yourself.” 


SIDEBAR: Firms See the MBA ROI

Lindsay Robertson, brand manager at General Mills, wasn’t looking for a dramatic shift in career path when she signed up for the Queen’s Accelerated MBA late in 2009, but she knew it wouldn’t hurt. She already had a business undergraduate degree and seven years of work experience, so the AMBA’s focus on strategy, growth, and capstone projects rather than business fundamentals was ideal.

Robertson found she was able to immediately start applying what she learned to her job. “I literally would bring templates from class to work,” she says. “I brought in my strategy workbook to my boss when we were trying to devise a new strategy for the way we went to market with consumer promotions. It helped guide some of our thinking and I was doing it at the same time in class. I think they saw the benefit clearly right away.”

She did quarterly check-ins with her manager to discuss her academic progress and clearly showed how her school work linked to her projects at General Mills.

Robertson also believes that successfully balancing work and school made a strong impression on her executive team. The company allowed her time off for her studies every second Monday and the four weeks she needed to be on campus, and even paid for part of the program (in return, she signed a three-year work commitment). “I was showing them how their money was being put to good use.”

Alan Morantz with files from Ben Williamson


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