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Women value MBAs, but institutions still struggle to attract candidates

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
Megan Tyler, director of enrollment, and Dr. Ethan Waples, director of MBA, at University of Central Oklahoma downtown MBA campus.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – Zindaba Tembo of Oklahoma City wants to earn her Ph.D., but she wanted to earn a master’s degree before embarking on that journey.

With a Bachelor of Science in Actuarial Science, Tembo had all the mathematics knowledge, but felt she was lacking in leadership and communications training.

“I wanted to improve my leadership, my communication and my problem-solving skills,” she said. “I was working as an insurance actuary at the time, and I had been thinking about earning my MBA for some time.”

Tembo is among a growing number of women enrolling in Masters of Business Administration courses as a way to boost their career paths. A graduate of the University of Central Oklahoma’s new downtown MBA program, Tembo said earning that degree is already paying off.

“This has been a tremendous push for my career,” she said. “I have the math skills, but now I have the management skills. One of the things I gained was the networking that I felt with my professors and people in the community. I was able to network myself into a new position.”

Although women today are enrolling in graduate business programs more and more on a national level, women still have not caught up with men in the number of Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degrees earned.

In addition, the national average of women enrolling and earning MBA degrees has hovered right at 38 percent and recent studies show that females have different motivations and different challenges in pursuing an MBA.

According to Graduate Management Admission Council white paper, “What Women Want: A Blueprint for Change in Business Education,” women globally earned 38 percent of MBA degrees issued to in 2015–2016 while 64 percent of those earning degrees were men. On the other hand, women rank alongside men in non-MBA specialist business master’s programs, receiving an average of 51 percent of such degrees in 2015–2016.

For Oklahoma higher education institutions, attracting women to the MBA programs is a strategic challenge. The University of Central Oklahoma’s MBA Program at UCO Downtown, the university’s downtown learning facility, is hoping to change those numbers.

Women MBAs

Ethan Waples, UCO’s director of MBA Program, said UCO’s program is trending along with the national average of more men applying than women.

“In terms of enrolling, we are getting closer to a 50/50 mix. There’s a lot of great research out there, and what the experts are saying is that the ‘glass ceiling’ metaphor of women is the wrong one,” Waples said. “There are many different decision points, many of which may lead to leadership. There are different pinch points that dictate a woman’s decision.”

Waples said research shows that women make different choices about business in three places. The first is not choosing a business major in the first place or not choosing to study courses like mathematics or economics.

“What we then ask ourselves is, ‘How do we help those people who haven’t made that choice on how to transition to a business career?’ and that’s one of our focuses,” said Waples.

Megan Tyler, director of enrollment for the UCO MBA program, said women without a business background can also benefit from an MBA, and many are beginning to realize that.

“We focus on bringing women in the classroom who may not actually have a business background. We actually welcome that because we are looking for those people in an array of fields who are motivated and who are ready to take that next step,” she said.

“For instance, we have a student who had a background in biology. She really wanted to achieve a leadership career in that field. She saw the UCO MBA as a pathway to that. It’s about leadership skills, leading people in an organization and making decisions.”

The second point where women differ in their choices is the time when family life and career begin to go head to head, Waples said. The third point is when a woman begins to transition into executive positions.

Supporting flexible schedules in the workplace and supporting employees who want to return to earn their MBA is key to addressing both points, Waples added.

“You can ‘say’ you encourage flexible schedules in the workplace and you can ‘say’ we want to support you if you want to take leave time, but you just can’t talk the talk. You have to walk the walk,” he said.

The white paper cites possible reasons for the trends, including the continued diversification of graduate business programs, including both new master’s programs (e.g. Data Analytics) and new MBA formats such as the online MBA, which have given women more study options.

The white paper showed that an MBA degree is still relevant and valued by women for career advancement and leadership opportunities in business. In fact, women are more likely than men to hold the MBA degree in high regard even though they have not yet achieved parity with men in MBA classrooms.

In addition, women are more likely to apply to a specific school like UCO because it offers flexible class times and shorter course completion. However, women globally still find financial reasons as the top reason they have not completed an MBA program. In the U.S., 30 percent of female applicants said finances were the biggest challenge, compared to only 9 percent of men.

“In the two years I’ve been here and having conversations about financial aid issues, it is predominately women who I have those conversations with,” said Waples. “It’s not typically the male students.”

UCO boasts of the “most affordable” program in the metro, Waples said, adding that a typical candidate can finish the 16-month program for $17,000 to $18,000.

“It was absolutely strategic,” said Waples. “There are programs out there that charge more money, and we wanted to build a product where we could offer that. Having those credentials are important, and by having an MBA, it will pay for itself.”

For schools wanting more female candidates, especially for the full-time MBA programs, the white paper said schools should address the unique motivations of women, which include promoting opportunities for learning, addressing women’s propensity for early planning by making the admission process more convenient and creating strategies for financial aid, scholarships and flexible scheduling.

Locating in the downtown area addressed the convenience aspect for UCO as well, Tyler said. Before moving the program to the heart of Oklahoma City, very few candidates from the city’s business district were enrolling, including women.

“This fall, though, we have enrollment where approximately 41 percent to 43 percent are women,” Tyler said. “It’s much more convenient to be in Oklahoma City’s business district. It makes it more accessible for people and allows us to be more connected. I think women are seeing that.”

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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