In Canada, less than a quarter of senior management positions are held by women, and that figure drops significantly looking up to the board level. The MBA has long been seen as a key enabler to improve these numbers, both for early- and mid-career women, but “age and stage” issues often drive decisions for women considering the degree.
With her engineering background, Christina Waters thought she would have to invest 20 years establishing herself before getting a high-impact management position. She was only six years into her career, though, and looking to speed up her progression. She figured a Queen’s MBA would do the trick, but then doubts began to creep in.
“I had to get over the impostor syndrome,” says Waters, now a Senior Director of Digital Transformation Services at GE Oil & Gas. “There’s this voice that says, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’”
In the end, Waters worked through her self-doubts and took the MBA plunge, much to her delight. “It was interesting talking to some of the other females in the program because you get to really know them in that one-year experience. We all went through this. We all hesitated. We all didn’t really believe we could do it, for whatever reason. I was glad I had that support network.”
It is a common refrain that Gloria Saccon, director of Queen’s Executive MBA, hears often when she conducts information sessions with prospective students and alumni. “The guys talk about confidence but the women bring it up sooner.” For many, she says, developing a “humble confidence” is the biggest gift of completing an MBA. “It’s the ability to converse with other functional areas of the organization, add value to that conversation, and extract what they need to make their strategic decisions,” Saccon says. “It enables them to be more nimble and adapt in a very fast-paced business environment.”
“The guys talk about confidence but the women bring it up sooner”
In Canada, women fill roughly 35 percent of all management positions and just under 25 percent of senior management positions. According to one study, women hold only 16 percent of board seats at Financial Post 500 companies; 40 percent of companies have no female board directors.
The MBA has long been seen as a key enabler to boost these numbers, both for early- and mid-career women. Business schools are working hard to make their programs more flexible to attract a greater number of female applicants, ever mindful of “age and stage” issues.
“The full-time MBA individuals tend to be in their late 20s and early 30s, some married and some single, the minority with families,” says Saccon. “With the EMBA, fast forward 10 or 15 years, and you’re working with people in senior management positions who have significant professional and personal commitments, such as raising young children or teenagers or looking after aging parents. For women, it can be complicated when they’re raising families. It’s a different conversation we’re having with them.”
Queen’s School of Business offers four MBA programs: a full-time MBA program in Kingston; an Accelerated MBA for those with an undergraduate business degree; an Executive MBA; and the Cornell-Queen’s dual degree EMBA.
In Queen’s full-time program, 42 percent are women, while in the EMBA program female representation is 22 percent. Saccon says there are three challenges for women considering an MBA program: achieving work-life balance; financial constraints; and return on investment, or “Will this help me to get to where I want to go?”
Saccon sees organizations being more proactive in bringing women into senior leadership positions and making allowances for those pursuing a graduate degree. “They understand that there’s more on the shoulders of someone who is in an EMBA program; that employee has a hard stop at 5 p.m.,” she says.
A small number of organizations offer financial assistance as well; in the case of the Queen’s EMBA, at most 25 percent of students have part of their tuition covered by their employers. “The full ticket is rare,” says Saccon, “but even if it’s half and the employer says, ‘Take the time you need for classes on our time,’ that’s golden. It shows they have some skin in the game.”
Women who have gone through the Queen’s MBA programs emphasize the support Queen’s provides in the way of tools, resources, and advice. They also highlight the importance of support from other women in the program and, particularly in the EMBA program, peer-to-peer learning.
That was certainly the case for Christina Waters. Her MBA experience “allowed me to go from my old company, a firm with annual revenues of $500 million, to GE’s start-up software company, GE Oil & Gas Digital, which is focused on fullstream oil and gas digital solutions.”
“It’s amazing that you don’t know what doors are open to you until you go into this program and see how your thinking changes and how you change as a person and start to believe in yourself.”