Are Online MBAs More Female-Friendly?

Some business schools believe that online education is a key to better gender balance on campus

Raising the proportion of women has been a key aim for many business schools, which recognize both the moral and business case for diversity, which can improve financial performance in organizations. Now, evidence is mounting that points to online education as a key to achieving a better gender balance on campus.  

“There is certainly the need to tackle gender balances at business schools, and Online MBAs can be a starting point,” says Steve Muylle, academic director of the Online MBA at Vlerick Business School in Belgium.

Online MBA students are most akin to those studying for Executive MBAs, who tend to be working senior managers with several years of professional experience. And, at least at some business schools, there is a greater proportion of women in Online MBAs than EMBAs.

At Vlerick, women account for one-third of the online cohort and only one-fifth of the EMBA class. For SMU Cox School of Business in the US, the Online MBA comprises 40 percent of the online class, while women make up 36 percent of the EMBA.

The flexibility of Online MBAs is a main draw for women

According to these schools, the flexibility of online programs is a key draw for women. Online MBA students are generally working professionals who have families, travel for work, or live a considerable distance from campus.

“The online format allows many women to combine work, family and social life — without having to compromise,” says Muylle. They can study coursework from anywhere, at any time: the average time that Online MBAs are studying on Vlerick’s online platform is between 10pm and 1am Belgium local time, suggesting they are fitting the degree around professional or personal commitments.

Students can also “pause” the MBA when they are too busy and enrol again when they have a bit more time on their hands.

“Job security — being able to continue working whilst learning — is also really attractive for women,” Muylle says. “There is an immediate and direct return on their investment: they implement what they’ve learned right away in their roles.” The MBA has traditionally been seen as the gold standard for those who want to reach leadership positions in the corporate world.

Olivia de Paeztron, learning designer in the EdTech Lab at ESMT Berlin, agrees with Muylle. “Women may appreciate the chance to continue working while studying, since the gender wage gap makes stopping work and taking out a loan for high tuition fees possibly riskier and with less guaranteed return on investment than for men,” she says.

“Some women may also be more worried about their personal safety when moving to a new city, in a way that men are not,” she adds. “Additionally, women may be less able to convince partners to move to where they want to study, again because they may be the lower earner and their career takes second place.”

[See the Top 10 Online MBA Programs for Women]

However, de Paeztron says none of this makes distance learning especially female-friendly. Indeed, the data are inconclusive: ESMT Berlin enrolled a lower proportion of women in its Online MBA (34 percent) than the EMBA (39 percent).

“A need for flexibility, convenience and saving time on travel to or from campus arguably serves to highlight the comparative inflexibility of other structures in a person’s life,” she says.

The ongoing effects of Covid-19 on Online MBA enrolments

The coronavirus pandemic is also impacting the enrolment of women in some Online MBAs. “We are seeing some postponements,” says Vlerick’s Muylle. “Given the uncertainty they are facing, women tend to be in doubt about whether and when to start their MBA, and want to make sure the funding, job security, and career impact will be there.

“What is more, the coronavirus pandemic is disturbing their life-work balance and making life potentially harder with kids being at home and work harder with more demanding jobs as they need to cope with the business impact of Covid-19.”

However, SMU Cox has not seen the same impact of the pandemic. “But we do see it currently driving an urgency for women and men from many backgrounds to seek an MBA,” says Jillian Melton, director of Online MBA admissions. Many students want to upgrade their credentials in a global economic recession.

Schools have put in years of work to achieve a better gender balance across their degree programs. One of the attractions at SMU Cox is that Online MBA students have access to all the opportunities that the on-campus students do, including clubs, mentorship, career management resources and hundreds of events and networking opportunities.

For instance, the Women in Business club offers unique opportunities to network with top female leaders in business. SMU Cox has also been a proud member of the Forté Foundation for over 15 years, a nonprofit that supports women MBAs through additional programming and scholarships.

At ESMT Berlin, there are several advertising initiatives and the school is making a conscious effort to feature more stories about female students and alumni on its website to encourage female participation in recruiting activities.

De Paeztron cautions against schools getting too hung up the modality through which an MBA is delivered. “We can and should tackle the gender imbalance in the curriculum and in teaching formats,” she says. This could mean including more case studies with female protagonists, by providing research on gender imbalance, or by featuring managerial tools that are diversifying and inclusive.

A tailored approach may be necessary. “Women are not a monolith any more than men are,” De Paeztron says. “Strategies to tackle the gender imbalance depend on the complex background of the groups. For example, what could work for women of color from North America may not work for women from the Global South. 

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