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Minding the Gap

Woman's hand holding pen and business documentBy Roanna Flowers

Sheryl Sandberg's book, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," generated a lot of buzz and conversation this year, both positive and negative. If there's one thing that isn't in short supply, it's advice. Women are told to lean in, speak up (but not too much), turn around (don't drown!), wait, don't wait (and definitely don't wait too long). It's like leadership aerobics.

But before women can "lean in," they have to get in. Business and engineering programs, in particular, are struggling to match gains made by law and medical schools in recent years. The national average of female to male MBA students still hovers around 30 percent to 70 percent. So far, there are only two institutions — Harvard and Wharton — that have hit a 40 percent-or-greater female enrollment mark, and that just occurred in the past couple of years. The 30-to-70 ratio is largely unchanged since 2000. 

What's the problem?

In 2000, the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, Michigan's Center for the Education of Women, and Catalyst, a nonprofit that seeks to expand opportunities for women and business, conducted a study on the opportunity gap for women in business schools. Most of the issues described in 2000 still persist. In that study, women graduates cited "barriers that they believe steer women away from pursuing an MBA. These include lack of a female role model (56 percent), incompatibility of careers in business with work/life balance (47 percent), lack of confidence in math skills (45 percent), and a lack of encouragement by employer (42 percent)."

Lack of female role models and business leadership has been a long-standing issue and remains an important factor. "We don't see many women CEOs," says Laura Kilcrease, founder and managing director of Triton Ventures, LLC, and recent entrepreneur-in-residence with the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship. "When young women can see examples of other women who have been successful and have graduate degrees who have done well, whether it's in their business or personal lives or their intellectual endeavors, they know they have choices."

Life stage decisions — of which work/life balance is a part — still affect female enrollment in graduate programs to a greater degree than their male counterparts. The average MBA enrollment age is about five years after undergraduate graduation. This comes at a time when many women are also beginning to consider starting a family.

"Women are making choices about life decisions that impact their career, whether to stay in their career if they have kids or to take a hiatus or a lesser position at the time they have children to have better flexibility. Men are increasingly making more of these types of decisions themselves, but traditionally women are the ones" facing these choices, says Tina Mabley, director of the Texas MBA Program. Some women may be stepping back or desiring a greater work/life flexibility that influences their determination to return to school, while men are opting into professional degrees.

McCombs Leans In

The Texas MBA program wants to change this trend. To address the timing issue, it is exploring the option of admitting exceptional and experienced students immediately after the completion of their undergraduate degree. "Undergraduates are much further along in their career planning than they were fifteen years ago," says Mabley. "We will look at students with a strong background in quantitative skills and who have had enough experience — through internships or jobs in school — to have developed a direction they want to take."

This could go a long way in providing women the flexibility they desire at the right time in their lives. "We think the MBA offers women a very versatile degree that they can use to create their career path in any direction they choose," says Mabley. "It gives them nimbleness for whatever decisions they make."

The Texas MBA program is also looking at the possibility of creating a social enterprise concentration, to build on the school's corporate responsibility courses and to potentially partner with departments like Business, Government, and Society. Having programs with strong social impact, such as social enterprise and the recently added health care concentration, may attract more female applicants who might have considered other areas of study. There is a clear interest among current MBA students, male and female, in programs that have a strong community tie. The Board Fellows program, for example, allows students to serve as non-voting members of a not-for-profit board. This past year, 75 students applied for 46 available positions.

Texas Strong

The Texas MBA program has well-established conferences and leadership events that bring female MBA students together with business leaders and consultants. And the return on investment for these initiatives is paying off. Current female MBA students have a high participation level and fill many of the leadership positions in McCombs organizations. In 2012, the women of the Texas MBA program closed the gender pay gap for the first time.

McCombs is a founding partner in the Forté Foundation, a consortium of companies and the nation's top business schools. The Forté Foundation, which formed in 2001 after the Michigan study, seeks to create a pipeline of women into business. A big part of that effort includes having events at different leverage points to reach out to female undergraduate business students. "The MBA is not the only path," Mabley says, "but it is a big part of the effort."

The female-centric events also create an environment where there is a higher comfort level to lean in.

The Women in Business Leadership Conference has also shifted its focus from work-life balance panels and topics that seemed to be traditional "women topics" to offering the same content that is of interest to male students. "The things that women want to talk about aren't different than what men want to talk about," Mabley says. "But they want to talk about it among women. This conference creates an opportunity for discourse among women about many of the same struggles that anyone who is pursuing a professional degree and a lifelong career would have: mentoring, balance, goals, leadership, and who to be in the workplace. They exist for anyone, but the ability to have these conversations among women who have been in the same place as our students is very meaningful."

Looking Ahead, Reaching Back

Laura Kilcrease, on far right, and the Women and Wine organizing committeeOn Oct. 18, the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship sponsored a "Women and Wine" event to bring current and prospective female MBA students together with Austin-area female CEOs and entrepreneurs. Kilcrease, one of the event's organizers, notes that the event was designed to show prospective female students areas of business that they may not have considered entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurship doesn't just apply to technology startups. "It's about exposing them to the many possibilities that are out there," Kilcrease says.

They also had a rare opportunity to have one-on-one face time with women CEOs and entrepreneurs in the Austin area and to benefit from the questions and conversations of their peers. "There is a female CEO network that is willing to talk to you," says Kilcrease. "How many places will you get that? It's quite powerful."

And effective. The next entrepreneurship event will take place in April and has already been sponsored by one of the women CEOs who attended the event.

"We want to broaden their family of women," says Kilcrease. "We want women to have choices and to be the best they can be —just as we do for our male students."

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