Imagine you’re sitting in an MBA lecture. If you look around the room, chances are you’ll notice more men than women.
Hoping to redress the gender imbalance at business school, some institutions are trying to get more women through their doors by offering MBA programs specifically created for female professionals.
Business schools, including Texas Woman’s University in the US, Ewha School of Business in South Korea, and the SP Jain Institute in India, all offer MBAs designed specifically for women.
So what could an all-female MBA program offer women in business, and what are the potential limitations?
Camaraderie in the classroom
The idea behind women-only MBA programs is to create a supportive environment, connect students with other ambitious women, and provide space to discuss the challenges faced by women in the corporate world.
In an all-female MBA program, everyone in the cohort has at least one thing in common—their gender. This can create a supportive and mutually understanding environment, which is one of the main advantages of studying a women-only MBA.
That’s what Nishita Rao (pictured) experienced during the Post Graduate Management Program for Women (PGMPW) at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR).
The Mumbai-based program is an MBA-equivalent, tailored to women who want to return to the corporate world following a career break.
“The camaraderie that we have among our cohort is a highlight of the program,” Nishita explains.
“Even though we each left the corporate world for different reasons, we share that same background and understand each other.”
For Nishita, who took a five year career break to care for her daughter full-time, being around women in similar positions has been empowering. Her background is in engineering, and she’s hoping to make the switch to management consulting when she graduates.
“We’re helping each other grow and regain the confidence it takes to step back into the corporate world,” she says.
This environment also has the potential to help women find their voices. According to Elissa Sangster, CEO of the Forté Fondation, female-only MBAs can make it easier for women to engage and share their views.
Forté is a consortium of top business schools and companies, supporting women’s progress in business through scholarships and mentoring opportunities.
“I’ve observed that one of the advantages of an all-female MBA cohort is that women won’t feel intimidated by their male counterparts like they might in a co-ed program,” says Elissa.
“For many years, the MBA classroom was not balanced. Women were underrepresented and often felt the classroom dialogue was dominated by men.”
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Focus on female leaders
Women studying in a single-gender MBA could also have greater leadership opportunities on campus.
“Women-only programs can allow its students to participate in a wider array of clubs and networking opportunities, since they’re not competing alongside men for positions such as president of the finance club,” suggests Stacy Blackman, founder of admissions consultancy Stacy Blackman Consulting.
“This can allow for a more robust school experience for some,” she adds.
Equally, with a women-only class, there’s greater incentive for professors to focus on women-led case studies, and discuss the issue of gender inequity in the corporate world.
At SPJIMR, for instance, female business leaders are in regular rotation on the guest speaker circuit.
“Some of our guest lecturers have been inspiring women leaders—and we got to network with them,” Nishita reports.
Drawbacks of a women-only MBA
Despite these advantages, female-only MBA programs also come with some drawbacks. For Elissa (below), the most significant downside is the fact that these programs limit the reach of your professional network.
“In a women-only MBA program, you’ll still create a network, but a potential drawback is that the connections you will build won’t be as diverse as one that is gender-balanced,” she reflects.
Since many industries remain male-dominated, a lack of male peers in a graduate’s network could limit her access to certain industry insights or career opportunities further down the line.
Without building a gender-diverse network, women in all-female MBA programs may also end up underprepared for navigating the realities of corporate life.
The vast majority of organizations employ both men and women, so the ability to work with diverse colleagues is essential for success.
“You are not going to find an industry filled with only women anywhere,” notes Elissa. “So learning to work with business leaders—the majority of whom are still men—is critical.”
For women to progress in business, male allies are also needed, she adds.
In a mixed-gender MBA, men have a chance to listen to their female colleagues and better understand the challenges they face and what support they can offer. In a segregated classroom, this opportunity for collaboration is removed.
Should you consider a women-only MBA?
As female representation in the traditional MBA classroom improves, female-led case studies are added to the curriculum, and women-only spaces develop on campus, Elissa thinks women-only MBA programs become less of a necessity.
They also appear to be less popular. Stacy says despite receiving hundreds of admissions enquiries each month, none of her clients are asking about female-only MBA programs.
Overall, Elissa and Stacy recommend choosing an MBA program with as diverse a cohort as possible—and this applies to gender as well as factors like nationality and professional background.
“Focusing on building a network—and experience—with just one gender reduces your odds of success, in my opinion,” says Elissa. “Companies that have a diverse workforce, leadership team, and board have better performance.”
If you're looking for your dream MBA, an all-women program could be the right choice in certain circumstances. It guarantees women have a voice in the classroom, and you can build connections with people who have similar experiences to you.
However, all this comes at a cost. Women-only MBA programs won't give you the broadest network, and they don't reflect the working environment you'll encounter after graduation.
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