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Universities helping women achieve MBA goals


The MBA has long been recognized as the ticket for career advancement, but most women executives believe there are too many roadblocks to achieving the degree. Universities are responding to their concerns by introducing one-year programs and helping them achieve work-life balance.

“All MBA schools are struggling to get women into two-year MBA programs,” says Sharon Irwin-Foulon, director of career management at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business in London. “The average age of an MBA student is 28, a time when most women are thinking about if and when they’re going to have a child.”

To meet demand, Ivey condensed its 16-month program into 12 continuous months. Benefits include helping students feel settled in their new community.

“One part of an MBA program is about the curriculum, but the other side is about building a network,” Irwin-Foulon says. “It’s a rigorous screening program … We’re building an extensively rich environment.”

Though the 12-month program has been criticized by some because it forfeits the traditional summer internship, just 15% of students were turning those internships into full-time jobs, Irwin-Foulon reports. She believes case-study learning prepares graduates well.

“With a one-year MBA, many women realize they can almost put their career on rocket fuel: they’re increasing their value within an organization, which increases their confidence if they do choose to step out to have a child,” Irwin-Foulon says. “Doing an MBA does build confidence.”

The one-year program appealed to Zahra Khilji, 28, who will be among the program’s first graduates this spring. Since completing an undergraduate degree from an American university, she managed a family restaurant and worked as a United Way campaign manager in Peel Region.

“If I wanted to move up in my career, I felt I needed business skills in addition to the ones I learned on the job,” Khilji says. She had been married just eight months when she moved to London to continue her studies at Ivey.

“The one-year program was absolutely attractive. You can be in and out of the workforce quicker … If I was going to be away from my husband, one year was sustainable … The program is demanding enough that you need to make it a priority. I’ve learned that everyone in my program has a story, but it’s worth it.”

Queen’s School of Business in Kingston has also introduced an accelerated MBA program as part of its efforts to attract women. Female students make up about 50% of undergraduate commerce programs, but that number drops to about 20% at the graduate level.

The school has launched one-on-one career coaching for students who identify their strengths upon entering the program. Its Fit to Lead program encourages students to lead a healthy, balanced and active lifestyle in preparation for business leadership. It also hosts networking and information-sharing events for women considering an MBA.

“We’re getting a real interest in the number of women applying to our programs,” says Shannon Goodspeed, director of Queen’s MBA. As the mother of three grown children, she understands the challenge of juggling career, education and family. “An MBA really assisted me in coming back into the workforce after periods of time off,” she says.

“Women are seeing that an MBA is something that could help them get ahead of the pack,” Goodspeed says. “It also gives you flexibility. If you leave the workforce for awhile, you will have an advantage getting back in. It’s also an extra advantage if you want to change careers.”

Survey : value on an MBA

An annual survey commissioned by Queen’s University and undertaken by Environics Research last year polled 400 Canadian business leaders to determine the value of an MBA education. Key findings include:

– 78% of executives would choose a candidate with an MBA over one without, all other factors being equal.

– 56% of women in senior-level positions believe there are too many obstacles for women to attain an MBA. Most-cited obstacles: family responsibilities (36%), lack of financial resources (18%) and lack of female role models (6%).