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From Military To Finance: A Fuqua MBA Does Wonderful Things For Women

Fuqua is making sure the gender gap doesn't widen. Sarah Feagles has leveraged the school's MBA to bag a job in finance, after years in the U.S Navy.

Thu Feb 27 2014

When it comes to female business leaders and MBAs, the numbers aren’t pretty: women make up just over 30 per cent of the student body at U.S. business schools. Just 4 per cent of Fortune 500 chief executives are female, and of the top-tenranked MBA programs in some MBA rankings, less than 22 per cent of tenured and tenure-track faculty are women.

Much has been written about the gender gap in business and MBA education. But one U.S. business school is taking steps to ensure that the gap doesn’t widen.

The Fuqua School of Business, part of Duke University, holds an annual MBA Weekend for Women, an event that offers all prospective female students a unique opportunity to experience Duke in the company of other women and like-minded individuals.

The school is also home to the Association of Women in Business (AWIB), a club that aims to help women succeed in the business world. Although clubs like these are quite common in the business school community, Fuqua’s is one of the most active. The AWIB holds regular networking events and panel discussions with alumni.

Fuqua’s Leading Women (FLW) club has a similarly strong following. Club co-chair Sarah Feagles says that being a woman at Fuqua is a beautiful thing.

And being part of the FLW has contributed significantly to her MBA experience, she says. “I’ve been able to take away experiences from the club and translate them into interview answers for questions potential employers might ask. And I can show them that I’m giving back to the school,” says Sarah.

When she joined Fuqua in 2012, gender diversity wasn’t a big deal for her. Most leading schools’ MBA classes in the U.S. are made up of about 30 per cent women, she says. “But once I got into Fuqua, I realized the male-female divide is something we need to talk about, and I got even more interested when I started my MBA,” Sarah explains.

She has a strong military background and that made the transition easier; she was surrounded by men during her Navy career and found it easier to work with the opposite sex. Sarah spent three years on the USS HOWARD, a destroyer in the United States Navy, in various roles, and a further year on the USS SPRUANCE.

Much like the business world, the Navy is predominantly male. The lifestyle can be extreme, and it is difficult for people with families to leave home for months at a time, she says. “It was a very technical field in my division and there is always a perception that technical things are more male-dominated,” Sarah says.

“I had to learn how to display my knowledge and actually tell people that I know what I am talking about, and that I was competent.”

Female MBAs who are hoping for more women role models in business may have a challenging time finding them. Sarah says that there is a similar gender divide in the Navy. “I noticed a lack of female leadership. I never had a female captain or a direct boss who was a female. And that was eye opening,” she says.

Sarah wanted to use an MBA to transition to a career in the financial services industry. She had a corporate finance minor, but for many top jobs in finance, a business school degree is a pre-requisite.

Sarah’s mother is a financial planner and she takes inspiration from her 40-year career in the sector. Yet while the global finance industry is one of the most popular among MBAs, it also harbours a huge gender pay gap. According to the Fawcett Society, a group that campaigns for pay equality between women and men in the UK, women who work in the UK’s finance sector are paid up to 55 per cent less than their male counterparts.

Sarah has secured a job at M&T Bank in Buffalo, New York, but agrees that there is a gender gap in the finance and education world. “Even while studying my undergraduate degree, there were still more males than females,” she says. “A lot of my girlfriends didn’t want to deal with finance; they would rather take marketing classes. I just don’t think that they find it as sexy as working at Google or Deloitte.”

Part of the problem is a lack of female role models. Only 6 per cent of executive directors in FTSE100 companies are women, and only four of those companies are led by women: Burberry, easyJet, Royal Mail and Imperial Tobacco.

Sarah says it would help if there were more women in high-profile business jobs. The FLW club holds a women in finance panel, where previous speakers have included female business leaders from Wells Fargo and JPMorgan.

The work-life balance is also an obstacle. “The working balance is different. And if you work for an investment bank, it’s tough,” Sarah says. “I chose a job in commercial banking, which is less stressful; I’m not working 100 hours per week. I don’t want that investment banking lifestyle.”

Forté Foundation – a non-profit consortium of leading companies and top business schools working together to launch women into business careers – predicts that earning an MBA can increase women’s salaries by up to 65 per cent within five years of graduation.

And Sarah believes an MBA from Fuqua has been essential in her career advancement. “An MBA was a must for me. Broadening my awareness was huge, and I needed the background and credibility to make the switch from the military,” she says.

“I didn’t even know a role like this existed before my MBA.”