Career Switching

Rethinking the Business School Audience

BusinesswomanAt 38 years old, Cynthia Elliott is a first-year MBA student at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh. A native of Florida, she’s finding that adapting to the cold winter has been much more difficult than meeting any challenges that her age might present. “My age really does not have an impact on my experience at business school,” Elliott contends. “If anything, it’s only positive.”

Elliott, and other women like her who have entered MBA programs 10 or 15 years later than the typical student, may well be a harbinger of things to come as business schools tackle the challenge of getting more women into their graduate programs.

Over the years, MBA schools have seen surges and declines in the numbers of female students, but in the aggregate, the student body averages about 30% women. In recent years, in fact, many admissions directors have witnessed a drop in the numbers of women both applying and matriculating to their MBA programs. And this has been a cause for concern because often it’s the general management expertise conferred by the MBA degree that propels women’s careers to positions of leadership.

The reasons for women’s lack of interest in business school seem to be twofold: first, women are more likely to go into fields that they see as having more social utility, such as education, health, or law. And second, the timing of business school conflicts with marriage and starting a family. For the majority of women in the United States today, these major life events occur between the ages of 25 and 32, exactly the ages at which most MBA programs admit their students.

Convincing women that careers in business have a high potential for social reward is a job being taken up by current female business leaders, the Forté Foundation, Catalyst, and other such advocacy organizations. But coming up with ways to accommodate the common patterns of women’s lives so that they can participate in the career paths that lead to leadership roles is a challenge that needs to be met by the businesses and schools that seek more female representation among their ranks.

And many are doing just that. Some forward-thinking business schools, including Forté member schools Wharton, Columbia, Yale, and Stern, have begun accepting women into their programs at younger ages and with less experience, in addition to offering shorter and more flexible programs. When women can obtain the MBA degree earlier in their careers, these models presume, it won’t conflict with caring for a family. With other options available to them, women are more likely to apply to business school and continue working toward higher-level management positions.

Indeed, the early-admit and flexible programs seem to be working. While those business schools still clinging tightly to the two-year, full-time program model that requires an average of five years’ work experience generally are seeing a stagnation or even a decline in the numbers of female applicants and admits, the schools that have modified their admissions requirements and programs are drawing a larger percentage of female students (Stern’s MBA class is now about 37% women, Wharton’s is 33%, Columbia’s is 36% and Yale’s 35%).

While some note that this strategy has the potential to backfire—women who enter b-school early, with less work experience than their male counterparts, may be less prepared, contribute less in the classroom, and therefore feel less prepared to succeed once out of school—it’s too soon to determine if such a danger exists. While waiting for time to tell if admitting female students earlier has a positive impact on the numbers of women in business leadership positions, however, schools would do well to also consider other solutions to the problem.

One such alternative strategy is to rethink the audience. What about the more mature women—those in their mid to late 30s and early 40s like Cynthia Elliott—who have already had their children? While their kids may only be of elementary or middle school age, these women realize that the empty nest isn’t that far away and are looking toward the next phase of their lives.

“Well-educated and career-focused women at this age realize that an MBA can help redefine our future career on our own terms so we’re not stuck following a corporate model that was developed to help our male counterparts progress in the company,” believes Erin Kitt, a second-year MBA student at Darden who’s juggling school and two children under nine. And with life spans increasing and people working into their late 60s and 70s, such older students will still be able to reap the financial benefits of the degree and can expect to embark on full-length careers.

More mature women are also likely to be much more deliberate students.

Cynthia Elliott believes that the biggest advantage she has over students 10 years her junior is that she knows what she doesn’t want to do. “I’m very focused, and since I’ve been out there, I can really relate to what the professors are teaching—I think that has a lot to do with the amount of work experience I have and my exposure to the workplace.”

“I think older students, particularly women, add a lot of value to the classroom,” adds Elliott. “Being older, you have a lot of background and a different perspective; and women have a way of looking at all the little details where men see things as more black and white. Women can add a lot to the discussion.”

Dr. Corine Farewell, who earned her MBA at the Johnson School of Business at Cornell in 2001, agrees, “There’s definitely a maturity issue. I wasn’t obsessed with being the top of the class or performing at some super-human level,” she says. “I learned what I needed to learn—I knew why I was there.” Thirty-nine at the time she was in school, she knew potential employers would be more interested in her track record than her transcripts.

Farewell returned to business school for the same reasons many others do. “My responsibilities were increasing and becoming strategic,” she says of her job overseas with a pet food company. “I was having to make decisions that involved accounting and finance, and coming from a veterinary background, I felt like there was a hole in my education—I needed to augment that knowledge gap.”

And even though she was a working single parent, Farewell found that there was little or no difference between herself and her classmates, aside from how late they got up on Saturday mornings. As far as balancing her role as mother with her status as student, Farewell says her seven-year-old daughter simply did the MBA with her. “If there were evening sessions or reviews for exams, she came with me and played games on her laptop, and she didn’t hesitate to join in. No one ever expressed any anti-kid sentiment.”

At Darden, Kitt says her children and husband have had to make adjustments while she’s in school, but for the most part it’s had a positive impact on the family. “My husband had to be the primary care giver the first year I was in school,” she says. “The kids’ relationship with their dad just got stronger.

“People need to get over the presumption that women are any different from men when it comes to MBA school,” Kitt continues. “The age difference or the gender difference were not things I even considered when looking to go back to school.” For Kitt, managing family and school simply means that she’s had to have her priorities in place. “You have to be focused—I don’t mess around, I don’t chit chat for hours.”

For all of these women, returning to school is enabling them to get someplace they want to go; it’s opening a world of possibilities that may have seemed completely out of reach in the sleep-deprived haze of a 4:00 a.m. feeding or amid the throes of a preschooler’s temper tantrum. “Now that my kids are older,” says Elliott, “I’m in a position to take advantage of some great opportunities in a way that I couldn’t when they were little. Most companies want you to put in 10-12 hour days: you can’t do that with a young family. I can do whatever I want now.”

Kitt feels similarly empowered. “I never got out an ROI calculator,” she says. “I never thought about it in those terms. I wanted to start a business, and I now have that capability where before I didn’t. This experience has set me up to do exactly what I want to do over the next 30 years.”

Elliott didn’t think about the return on her educational investment either. “I just don’t think you can put a value on it,” she says. As the first person in her family to attend college, and only the second to finish high school, Elliott was interested in changing the legacy of her family, not in how much money she might be able to make.

And whether or not they are intentionally seeking to reverse a legacy, like Elliott, when mothers go to MBA school, they surely affect not only their own generation of women in business, but also the potential of the next.

“As a result of my nine-year old daughter’s exposure to business school, she’s already planning her first entrepreneurial venture and should launch her dog-sitting service this spring,” says Kitt. “Hopefully, she’ll be successful because she definitely understands the concepts of revenue, expenses and profit margin.”

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