THE BLOG

Being a Woman MBA Candidate Is a Beautiful Thing

02/19/2014 08:27 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2014

There has been quite a buzz about being a woman in business school, thanks to the New York Times' article about Harvard Business School and its policies regarding gender equity. While I can't comment firsthand about the culture at HBS, I can tell you what I thought about when applying to business schools, my experience as an MBA candidate, and what I've been able to do while getting my MBA to increase awareness about women's roles both in the classroom and in the professional arena.

While strides can still be made toward complete gender equality in business school programs across the country, I believe that schools are making great strides to ensure that both males and females are respected and invited to every conversation.

Coming from the military, I was used to working in an environment that was predominately male. And to be quite honest, I learned to enjoy the challenges and advantages that being a woman leader presented within the military context. Bringing a different perspective to the table and having alternative priorities than some of my male (and female) colleagues made me a valuable asset to our team, and exposed me to the thorough practices of regimented, mission-driven individuals, which was a change from some of my undergraduate college leadership roles.

That being said, I did look at diversity in business school as a relatively high priority because I wanted greater exposure to women in business who were determined to break the proverbial glass ceiling. Some of the first conversations I had about choosing a business school were from my outreach efforts to women's groups because I knew that women were the minority, and I wanted to hear their thoughts on equality in the classroom and after graduation.

These candid conversations were extremely valuable and provided me with specific insights from the female perspective. For example, I learned the reality of classroom dynamics and what types of networking opportunities were available exclusively for women. These conversations helped me to determine which schools to keep at the top of my list.

Women are everywhere in MBA programs

One effort MBA programs are making is hosting weekend visit opportunities for prospective female students. It provides women applicants a chance to come to campus, attend class, and interview with second-year students. While I couldn't attend these when I was a prospective student because of scheduling conflicts, I was impressed by the events, and heard how useful they were for friends of mine who were deciding on a school. There are even speed career networking sessions, so attendees could ask second years about their summer experiences and about what they're planning to do full-time. It was a great way to introduce the reality of post-business school choices to prospective students -- definitely not something I thought enough about before applying to B-school

When I decided to apply to business school, another consideration was whether or not gender differences were strikingly apparent. By looking at the ratio of female bloggers, asking about the gender breakdown of schools' veterans associations, and reading about the number of staff and faculty that are women, I was able to discern which schools prioritized women's advancement over others.

The fact that only about 35 percent of most top-tiered MBA programs is female doesn't detract from the overall impact and involvement that women have upon their programs, and not just through the schools' traditional "Women in Business" Club. What was pleasantly surprising to me during the application process was that most schools don't need to emphasize gender-neutrality in their marketing strategy because their cultures value mutual respect and inclusion, no matter if you're an international student, a female, or a minority.

While at Fuqua, I haven't been disappointed by the gender diversity on campus or in the classroom. As a first-year, I had plenty of role models to look up to, and this year, I'm proud to be a club leader. About 31 percent of club presidents are female this year, which is roughly proportionate with the total number of women in my class (35 percent). Although my section reflected the typical 35/65 percentage split across the genders, I was always able to raise my hand and participate in class, and I witnessed other women in class doing the same - the only thing affecting our air time was our own willingness to speak (or lack thereof).

As a woman who's concentrating in finance and going into banking post-graduation, the only instance where I have noticed the stark split between males and females is in my finance classes. In my Private Equity and Venture Capital Class last term, there were 11 women compared to 66 men. My personal theory as to why this huge difference exists is because women in my class are focusing on marketing or strategy instead of financial fields. Finance professionals are typically and traditionally male, based on what I've seen, and my girlfriends in various MBA programs just aren't interested in finance (trust me, the marketing courses at an MBA level are just as quantitatively rigorous as the finance, so I don't buy the excuse that women aren't as good at math as men).

The gender divide was much more equitable in my Managing of Innovations class at 26 women and 29 men, and it was quite refreshing to hear more women speak up in class and have an equal divide on our six-person team, with three men and three women. MBA programs can't make women become more interested in finance as a career path. So, until more women rise in professional financial ranks and encourage other women to join them, it will be up to those of us in school to tout the value of our Valuations and Investment courses and encourage our female friends to join us.

Changing the Status Quo

I think the best part about being a woman in business school (and the thing that they don't tell you about during your admissions interviews) is the fact that you have the ability to affect change.

I believe that I've impacted gender awareness at school through my involvement with Fuqua's primary woman's group, Association of Women In Business. As Leadership Co-Chairs, Chantel Pizarro and I instated "MAP," which stands for the Male Ambassador Program. Through this initiative, we aim to bring men into the conversation about gender differences within Fuqua and within broader professional settings.

Last year at AWIB's annual conference, men were essentially shunned from the discussions and panels because the event was financially sponsored by an outside entity, and we didn't have control over who attended. This was unfortunate and in response, Chantel and I scheduled two events this past fall to increase the dialogue with men (after all, what's the point in talking about gender issues with only one gender in the room?).

Our first event included 40 attendees who listened to a panel of alumni talk about gender perceptions in the work place, and best of all, the gender split of attendees was 50/50. It was the first time I had ever heard a male's perspective about gender issues (or lack thereof), and the alumni had incredibly insightful comments.

And our outreach isn't just for students. We also hosted a discussion with faculty and administrators about gender at Fuqua. What's even better is that these initiatives aren't just happening at Fuqua: there are similar programs at HBS and Darden.

Although I have never expected special treatment because of my gender, it is important for me to be in an MBA program that allows students to have candid conversations about male and female relationships. Increasing awareness about subtle biases that both genders have will pay off great dividends when current MBA candidates are 10-20 years into our careers and have the privilege of hiring, promoting, and retaining qualified candidates.

These discussions have only begun thanks to female executives like Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO and author of Lean In, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton University Professor and author of this popular article in The Atlantic, and we won't see the results immediately.

However, we, both men and women in business school, owe it to future generations to have the conversations now about gender in the workplace -- which is why I'm proud to say I'm making a difference at an institution that encourages and actively supports all students, no matter their gender.

Sarah Feagles is a proud member of Fuqua's Daytime MBA program. She will graduate in May and will enter the commercial banking world as a Relationship Manager for M&T Bank.