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How An MBA Can Help Women In Business Realize Their Leadership Potential

Where gender stereotypes and biases persist, could an MBA help women to overcome the challenge and achieve their career goals?


Wed Jul 31 2019


A good MBA program imparts more than just knowledge. It helps students to build a network, gain valuable leadership experience, and improve their confidence.

According to Dianne Bevelander, professor at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), and executive director of the Erasmus Center for Women and Organizations (ECWO), these benefits are especially poignant for women. 

Today, only 30% of US businesses are owned by women, and just 24 of the Fortune 500 have a female CEO at the helm. At this rate, the World Economic Forum predicts, women won’t achieve economic equality for another 202 years.

MBA programs could give women a boost in securing their fair share of influential positions. 

Confidence is key

Something as ostensibly simple as confidence may prove vital if women are to achieve true equality. 

In a 2003 study, psychologists David Dunning and Joyce Ehrlinger found that women consistently underestimated their performance in a scientific reasoning task, while men tended to overestimate their abilities. 

This phenomenon is dubbed ‘the confidence gap’, and some researchers believe it partly explains why women are underrepresented in positions of leadership. 

Because women are less likely to talk up their abilities, the theory goes, they’re less likely to get noticed in the corporate world. 

Undertaking an MBA could help women to narrow the ‘gap’.

“It will push women to move outside their comfort zone and give them the confidence to be less modest and allow their talent to shine,” Dianne observes. 

“They will learn to push boundaries in innovation, accept risk, and welcome leadership roles.”

Research from the Forté Foundation, a charity supporting women in business, backs up this view.

Their survey revealed that 95% of MBA graduates experienced a confidence boost, while 85% attributed their career success to the MBA. 

Fostering debate

Of course, low confidence is just one factor in a cultural milieu that holds women back from positions of power. 

“The bias against women’s progression is more of a systemic problem,” Dianne cautions. “What needs to change are the social views and attitudes in society that hold women back from taking leading roles in organizations of all types.”

In today’s MBA classrooms, as in the boardroom, women remain underrepresented. One study by Concordia University found that, in the US, only 36% of MBAs are awarded to women.

“Sadly, MBA programs generally have significantly more male participants and more male faculty,” Dianne observes, “plus the curriculum often reinforces male stereotypes.”

Despite this bias—or because of it—Dianne believes that MBA programs offer a great space to open up dialogues about gender inclusion.

“I would advise that women remain aware of gender stereotypes and the implicit bias that this produces—in others and in themselves,” she recommends. 

“They should not be afraid to debate and question issues of diversity within and beyond the classroom.”

A movable asset

When MBA students move beyond the classroom, their qualification can snag them not only a significant increase in salary, but also improved employability, and respect.

According to a survey carried out by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), more than 90% of Fortune 500 companies plan to hire recent MBA graduates in 2019.

“An MBA remains an excellent medium for talented women to both gain further management and leadership insight, while providing proof of their undeniable abilities,” Dianne observes.

“An MBA is a movable asset,” she explains, “you take it with you wherever you go.”

Looking to the future

Dianne is confident that change will continue to happen, and that we’ll continue to move towards gender equality. 

Women, she says, are equally as intelligent, creative, and capable as men, and an MBA can help that translate into more women in senior leadership roles.

This inclusion works. According to a 2007 study by McKinsey, organizations that include women on their boards are 35% more likely to achieve above average financial returns compared to their male-only counterparts. 

“An MBA is truly a transformational experience," Dianne says. "You learn so much about yourself, you gain business knowledge, and you make invaluable and lasting friendships.

“I would encourage more women to think about doing an MBA.”