Kristina Keneally
Kristina Keneally

Women in MBA Program recognises the importance of valuing and promoting diversity in the workplace and at business school.

Ranked as Australia’s top business school by the Financial Times, Macquarie University’s Graduate School of Management (MGSM) launched an initiative last year to break down barriers to postgraduate business education for women.

Through its Women in MBA program (WiMBA), women are financially supported through their study by both MGSM and their employer or sponsor. The employer or sponsor must also provide practical support and mentoring within its organisation.

The Hon. Kristina Keneally, the first female Premier in NSW, is the Director for Gender Inclusion at MGSM. She oversees the program to build it to over 100 recipients and develops its mentoring component.

Keneally commented on the disparity between the number of men and women completing MBAs and how having an MBA can be necessary for one’s career. “Women outnumber men in undergraduate business programs but only 35% of MBA enrolments in Australia.

“The days where a person could rise from the shop floor or check-out counter to the senior leadership of a company – without any tertiary or graduate training – are most likely behind us. The MBA is a powerful tool for promotion to executive and leadership roles – if women miss out on an MBA, they miss out on opportunities.”

Challenges that women face in the workplace and during business school

Based on research conducted by MGSM, the primary barriers for women in completing MBA studies are regarding time and costs and considering these factors led to the development of WiMBA. There are also a few more specific disincentives for women to enrol in an MBA:

  • Lack of female mentors or role models in business – women more often do not associate an MBA with career success when they look upwards in their organisation and see few women in leadership roles
  • Persistence of a gender gap in salaries – women more often calculate that the financial investment will not reap a return
  • Group work and intensive classes are a challenge for working mothers
  • Work-life conflict issues are more significant for women, who are often the primary caregiver – even if they are the breadwinner
  • Employers have the most significant single role to play in helping women overcome their concerns and supporting them through an MBA

Kylie Flament, who started her MBA at MGSM in January 2012 and completed it in April this year, has observed and experienced such challenges first-hand.

“Firstly, we tend to be less assertive than men, waiting for rather than asking for salary increases, not applying for roles unless we think we fulfil 100% of the criteria, and sometimes it also manifests as being quieter in the classroom or workplace.

“Secondly, we are more likely to pick up home duties, so we have more to balance while studying and working. Most men consider an MBA (and networking) part of their job… Women generally feel that they must justify every extra commitment and plan carefully to ensure the kids/house/pets are taken care of.”

Why is diversity so important?

Keneally emphasised the unconscious bias in both men and women and how this harms the leadership qualities and innovations that diversity can deliver. She outlined that such bias often relies on deeply ingrained cultural assumptions and stereotypes. To surpass this challenge, she advised that we must “acknowledge and challenge this bias in ourselves and those with whom we work.”

As for stereotypes she has faced during her career, Keneally remarked, “Pick one, and someone has probably hurled it at me! Everything from demeaning gendered insults to comments such as ‘She’s obscenely ambitious.’ In a man, ambition is valued. In a woman, it is often seen as ‘obscene’.”

Keneally highlighted how significant institutions – government, corporate, and community – need to value, reflect and promote the diversity of the communities they seek to serve.

 “Now, more than at any point in human history, individuals have ample opportunities to explore and express the diverse ways they experience the world. The notion of a ‘normative experience’ of white and male no longer holds and hasn’t for some time. What has taken longer is for our major institutions’ leadership to reflect the diversity of the communities they seek to serve.”

Quotas can be necessary for promoting leadership diversity, forcing those in leadership to confront any unconscious bias and demanding consideration of the qualities and contributions of people who may have been overlooked.

Keneally expanded on this by stating, “It is bogus to suggest that people should be promoted on ‘merit alone. First, people are never promoted on ‘merit alone’ – if they were, there would be more women, gay or lesbians, people of colour, and people with a disability in leadership roles! Secondly, a quota doesn’t mean people without ability are promoted – we have to widen our circle to find the people with ability, regardless of their gender, sexuality or any other consideration.”

The benefits of mentoring

Since one of the disincentives for women to undertake an MBA is that they look upward in the organisation and do not see women occupying leadership roles, women are less likely to believe that the investment in an MBA will be beneficial.

In response to this, Keneally emphasised the significance of mentoring and career planning within WiMBA. “We know how powerful it can be for any person – female or male – to have a champion and advisor in their corner. Women often miss out on a mentor for many reasons – unconscious bias, a preference for available mentors to find ‘people like them’ (men), or simply not engaged in the same kind of networks to make the necessary connections. Of course, this is changing, but we seek to accelerate this change by making mentoring and career planning central to WiMBA.”

Flament also found a mentor who has supported her and acted as a sounding board. “She is someone who is not afraid to tell me what’s what, and that has helped me to see new ways of tackling issues and areas where I needed to develop. She understands the difficulties of balancing work and home life, which has helped me consider my own situation.”

The MBA experience

When questioning whether to study for an MBA, there were several factors that Flament had to consider.

  • Reputation
  • Flexibility (“I liked that I could study as few or as many subjects as I liked each term and that they offered weekly or ‘block’ classes”)
  • Cost (WiMBA aims to help with this)
  • Delivery mode (“Face-to-face is great because you connect with the teaching staff and fellow students”)
  • Entry requirements (“I wanted to work with people who came with real experience, not having just finished their undergraduate degree”)
  • Location

Coming from an HR background and wanting to enter general management, Flament decided to complete an MBA to build business skills, work with managers from various industries, and ‘stretch’ herself to see whether she had what it takes to be an executive-level business leader.

Flament found the study during her MGSM challenging and stimulating. “Almost all of the subjects I was able to apply immediately to my work as the Cardiac Services Manager at Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network. For example, Marketing Management led to a new fundraising strategy; financial subjects helped me to look at and use my data more effectively. Public Speaking was timely for a presentation I did in front of a crowd of 300.”

MBA Women and Equality















Are you considering an MBA?

Flament’s advice to women considering an MBA is:

  1. Know what you want from an MBA. The real value is what you get out of it. Consider whether it is the right degree for you – are you interested in being a general manager, business leader and/or executive director, or are you more interested in a particular industry where there might be a Masters that is more focused for you? If you’re a generalist and want a high-level, well-rounded post-graduate education, you’re in the right place.
  2. Use networking opportunities, attend events, and be involved in extra-curricular life.
  3. Plan how this will fit into your life and get your partner, family, boss, colleagues, friends and anyone else you need on board. It makes life a lot easier if they know what to expect and can support you practically and morally.
  4. Enjoy it! For all the hard work, doing an MBA stretches your thinking and opens up opportunities because you understand management and your style. You come out with the confidence to take on enormous challenges.

MGSM’s WiMBA encourages diversity in leadership by partnering with corporate and government organisations to identify their top female employees and support them through an MBA.

For those considering studying an MBA, MGSM has programs on its CBD and North Ryde campuses and its current availability in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.