Using Mount Kilimanjaro as a metaphor for business, 15 business students set out to climb Africa’s highest peak last September as part of an elective course at the Rotterdam School of Management.
One of the aims of the difficult nine-day trek was to force participants to work together to overcome physical and mental barriers, according to Dianne Bevelander, an associate dean of the school and the chief organizer of the trek. All students participating in the exercise were women, and that, according to Ms. Bevelander, is the point.
The Kilimanjaro M.B.A. leadership course was designed to bring female business leaders — often accustomed to being outnumbered by male colleagues — to learn to trust and rely on other women. “It was the first time for many of them working together with other women, relying on other women, pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone,” Ms. Bevelander said.
Women are still underrepresented in many M.B.A. programs. But business schools are responding to demands by more companies for more women in upper management. Experts, however, warn of the difficulty of getting more women into business school classrooms.
“Just because more women are needed in business and more women are wanted in classrooms, does not mean that more women will go for these spots,” said Dawn Bournand, who runs the Women in Leadership seminar at a global M.B.A. fair organized by QS, a private education networking organization.
Recognizing the hurdles that many women face — both when considering an advanced business degree and in the male-dominated world of corporate leadership — has helped some schools attract more female students.
Besides actual or impending quotas of women on executive boards in some countries, many businesses are looking to highly educated women to lead their businesses.
“There is an increased sensitivity on this topic,” said Sandrine Devillard, a director at McKinsey and an author of a series of studies on women in corporate leadership, titled Women Matter. “Women are different leaders, and what brings the value is the diversity of leadership,” said Ms. Devillard.
Sometimes a deliberate change in desired management style within the leadership can see more women hired for top positions, Ms. Devillard explained. Business schools are accepting that they are part of the pipeline that produces these female leaders, Ms. Devillard said.
While the Rotterdam School of Management’s Kilimanjaro elective may be an extreme example, an increasing number of schools are focusing on building women-to-women networks.
“More and more schools are using women networks,” Ms. Bournand said.
Francis Petit, associate dean at the Fordham Graduate School of Businessin New York, tries to informally pair female applicants with female students in similar life situations. Applicants who follow students for a day of classes can better anticipate some of the challenges of balancing work, school and private life. Fordham’s business school does exceptionally well in maintaining a gender balance in its classrooms. According to Mr. Petit, women made up 51 percent of the 2010 executive M.B.A. class.
“Women do not seem to have enough access to inspiring female role models who manage to do it all,” said Tanja Levine, an executive director at the Hult International Business School, which has campuses in Boston, Dubai, London, San Francisco and Shanghai.
According to Ms. Levine, Hult tries to overcome this barrier by connecting female applicants with both female students and alumni and by “actively encouraging” women to apply for M.B.A. programs. In its executive M.B.A. course, 42 percent of the students are women; 38 percent of the students in the full-time M.B.A. class are women. Like some other business schools, Hult provides networking communities for female students specifically. The Global Society of Women in Business, for example, provides links to corporations, personal development and a service for women for mentoring partnerships.
Since many of these programs often require extensive work experience, many women who chose to enroll must balance their family life with graduate school and in many cases a corporate career. “Some of our main barriers are about juggling commitments,” said Ms. Levine.
Though many men also have families when they enter business school, experts say that women tend to still fill the role of main caregiver.
“You have three balls in the air rather than just two,” Ms. Bournard said.
Business schools that are popular with women often also ensure that courses are flexible to facilitate a busy schedule. Ms. Levine says that Hult puts special emphasis on individual modules that can be repeated if missed and course times that can be extended without penalty.
The Graduate Management Admission Council, the educational organization that conducts the GMAT entrance test, estimates that in 2011, 34 percent of global applicants for a one-year, full-time M.B.A. were women. In the same year, women represented 40 percent of those applying for “flexible” M.B.A.’s, programs that can be extended over several years and taken part-time. The same study found that only 27 percent of women taking the GMAT were applying to executive M.B.A. courses.
Financial considerations tend also to be more important among female applicants, Ms. Bournand said. To help overcome that barrier, many schools provide scholarships for women. A trend toward allowing payment by installment is also helping women decide to invest in advanced business education, Ms. Bournard said.
Ms. Bevelander of the Rotterdam School of Management is organizing another Kilimanjaro trip for female executive M.B.A. students. For the next trip, scheduled for September, she is hoping to find female corporate leaders to share the experience with the students.
When asked whether she herself would be part of the trip, she demurred.
“It is definitely a very long climb up,” she said.
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