14 Aug 2020 15:24 IST

Why record numbers of women are taking to the MBA

A welter of factors is driving gender diversity in B-schools

Mehak Gupta and Tanvi Sawant are second-year students of IIM Bangalore. Their batch of 2019-21 has 37.4 per cent of women, an all-time high for the B-school. Gupta and Sawant are part of a rising cohort of women who are joining up for the MBA. The overall percentage of women in the top six IIMs for the class of ’21 tots up to 33.5 per cent, up from 26 per cent the previous year. As Sawant says, “More women are seen holding positions of power and influence and are involved in decision making. They are now supported to climb the ladder and hold leadership positions. This leads to more women joining B-schools as it acts as a catalyst in their journey of becoming good managers and leaders.”

Gupta, while endorsing that viewpoint, says, “B-schools have realised that for a wholesome classroom experience, it is essential to have equal representation of opinion and diversity in thought. A skewed male classroom will only be discussing ideas and thoughts from their point of view, not that they are wrong, but they are not fully representative of the society to which they’ll be applied.”

Investment of money and time

Their assessment of why more women are taking to an MBA programme is supported by views of female students across B-schools. Namrata Rajagopal, who passed out of ISB this year and is set to join a top consulting firm, says, “At the end of the day, doing an MBA is a significant investment of money and time. Women will only choose to invest, if they are reasonably assured of landing great jobs. Hence, the corporate sector’s push for equal pay and greater diversity definitely plays a role.” ISB itself has seen its diversity ratio scale up over the last many years and is now at a 40 per cent female representation, up from last year’s 38 per cent, points out Dibyendu Bose, Director of Admissions & Financial Aid at ISB.

Of all the B-schools, IIM Kozhikode has upped the gender diversity quotient the most. The post-graduate programme in management batch of 2020-22 has female students constituting 52 per cent of the cohort of 492 students. Debashis Chatterjee, Director, says that IIMK has been at the forefront of achieving gender diversity and its 2013-15 batch broke the glass ceiling by inducting a record 54.29 per cent women students. With 40 per cent of the present batch coming from various non-engineering disciplines, such as architecture, arts & sciences, commerce, management and medicine, it will be also the most academically diverse.

Chatterjee explains that in 2012 IIMK had adopted a policy of greater gender and other forms of diversity in the IIMs. Prior to 2012 the average intake of women in the flagship PGP programme was 8 to 10 per cent. He says a high gender diversity was achieved through “introduction of consistency in academic performance, including class 10 and 12 results, in the overall assessment for admissions. Girls tended to fare as well as or better than boys.”

Strength to managerial roles

Analysing the greater influx of women to B-schools in the past few years, Prof Ashis Mishra, Chairperson, Admissions, IIM Bangalore, says that B-schools run career-oriented programmes. “The demand for management education among women is triggered by two developments. One, organisations are encouraging women professionals by promoting them to senior positions. Although the proportion of women in leadership positions has a long way to go yet, there is a recognition of the need to encourage women. More importantly, women have been increasingly demonstrating that they bring strengths to leadership and managerial roles that men do not. Multitasking, empathy, and the ability to carry people along are a few of them. It is no longer a case of making way for women on grounds of gender alone,” he explains.

Also, as he says, B-schools draw their cohorts substantially from engineering colleges, where the seeds of aspirations towards a managerial career are initially sown. More and more women are entering these engineering programmes, across all kinds of disciplines, including mechanical engineering, production, metallurgy, and so on. “That is another factor that leads to their increasing entry into B-schools. Our data tells us that a vast majority of the girls entering our programmes have a prior background in engineering,” he adds.

ISB's Bose agrees. Says he: “The corporate sector is recognising that women bring in a fresh perspective and a more collaborative leadership style, particularly relevant today as organisations focus on empathy and innovation. The diversity mandate to include more women is now firmly placed at the heart of the talent agenda across organisations – right from entry-level positions up to the board room. As a result, MBA is steadily becoming a preferred option amongst women candidates.”

Selection criteria

ISB, he says, has not skewed its selection criteria to favour women, but does make a conscious effort to iron out any limitations that prevent women from advancing in their careers. “We have noticed that most working professionals find it hard to take a two-year break for B-school as the opportunity cost is high, and this is even higher for women. Our one-year programme slashes that cost straight-away by half! This feature of our PGP course encourages more women candidates to apply to ISB compared to B-schools with two-year programmes,” says Bose.

IIMB’s Mishra says in its interview panels it is evident that increasingly women seek independence, socially and economically. They also wish to have their own identity as people of substance, as professionals, as achievers. “Parents seem to play a big part in encouraging, sometimes even fuelling these ambitions. During interviews, we gather this sense based on so many individual narratives. Again, it is not as if this change has cut deep into Indian society. What is refreshing is that this seems to be increasing steadily over the years,” he says.

The limited data that the B-school has, he says, does suggest that these positive developments are not uniform across all demographic profiles. “That said, they are significant enough to suggest a large catch-up phenomenon at work,” he adds.

Kamal Karanth, co-founder, Xpheno, a specialist staffing firm, says as enterprises invest in improving diversity ratios, it is not uncommon anymore to see programmes like female-only campus drives, diversity hiring camps, gift her a job! (referral programme), and women engineers campus hiring programmes. “These initiatives from marquee brands like Amazon, IBM, Goldman Sachs, BOSCH, Hitachi Systems, DBS Bank, and HGS drive volumes in campus hiring processes. The sheer quality of women skillsets in some of the institutions drives a preference for hiring more women candidates even if an active D&I agenda does not exist with certain employers,” he says.

Support from family

Sawant of IIMB, a chartered accountant who did a stint with PwC before opting for an MBA, says if one sees the drift in the last decade, the number of women in the middle and top management of big corporates has grown quite rapidly due to constructive policies on a gender-balanced workforce, support from family, institutions and organisations. “Other reasons include the Companies Act making it mandatory to appoint a woman director for specified companies. Also, women have started adapting to an ‘always on, always available’ workplace culture. Earlier, this factor was holding back gender diversity since women prioritised family over work,” she explains.

Karanth points out that while the falling female labor force participation rate is a concern, the healthy mix of skills that the organised women workforce has created is encouraging. “Traditionally banking, teaching, advertising, hospitality, airline, and health services were the go-to industries for women professionals. This pattern was broken by engineering qualification as the first and largest leveler that brought more women into otherwise male-dominant industries. The MBA is now looked at as the next big leveler for women's talent to enter into an even wider terrain,” he says.

Most of the changes are being driven by GER - gross enrollment ratio for higher education and now with digital training platforms available like Coursera to Edx and the like, we are witnessing a larger pool of qualified and upskilled women professionals in hiring pipelines, adds Karanth.

Chatterjee of IIMK says that in the 2018 campus recruitment for the first time the top consultancies McKinsey, BCG and Bain & Co had made equal offers to females and males and the trend continues. “Our Board of Governors as well as faculty diversity is the best among first generation top six IIMs. It was a ten-year-strategy to improve gender diversity which is now paying off,” he says. More women in the MBA and in the corporate sector is now an idea whose time has come, he says. “The pendulum is shifting. You can’t keep educated, aspirational women down for long.”