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Women executives and the MBA

Women executives and the MBA – building confidence, support and a can do attitude main image

For years it was nearly impossible to hear about women executives without also hearing about the infamous glass ceiling. This invisible barrier blocking the climb to the top seemed to be plaguing women around the world and in almost every career sector. In recent years though, the glass ceiling has begun to show some real cracks and numerous women executives and leaders are proving that there are indeed ways to get past the obstacles.

How then can an Executive MBA help women not only push past the impediments but also assure that when they get to the other side, they can comfortably stay there? Professors Michelle K Ryan and Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter coined the term ‘The Glass Cliff’ to demonstrate that once women break through the glass ceiling and take on positions of leadership they often have experiences that are different from those of their male counterparts. More specifically, the glass cliff theory states that women are more likely to occupy positions that are precarious and thus have a higher risk of failure – either because they are appointed to lead organizations that are in crisis or because they are not given the resources and support needed for success. This is where strong professional relationships, steadfast self-confidence and the courage to act upon what you know comes in – all elements that can be gained and/or enhanced through participation in an EMBA program.

Creating a support network

Though an Executive MBA cannot guarantee open doors to the c-suite, it can certainly create the opportunities to at least knock on those doors and begin looking at what is possible. The powerful support networks and meaningful connections that are created when pursuing an EMBA are often cited by alumni as one of the most valuable elements of the program. According to Kevina Kenny, an alumna of Hult International Business School’s EMBA class of 2013, “The most memorable moments in the program were created by people I met on the course. It was refreshing to meet people with differing backgrounds and experiences; whether we were engaging in classroom debates about current business issues or discussing our personal reflections, the exchange was always invigorating.”

France Margaret Bélanger, alumna of the McGill – HEC Montreal EMBA class of 2014 was also able to create strong ties through her program: “The experience was actually a lot of fun,” she says. “As anticipated, it was hard work and challenging at times, especially from a time-management standpoint. However, I had not expected the level of friendship that would be formed over the 15-month period the cohort spent together, the amount of fun we had as a group and the support network we were able to offer each other.”

Building confidence

Along with the invaluable support of a strong professional support network, building confidence is essential for avoiding the glass cliff. Fortunately, building confidence seems to be a common benefit enjoyed by EMBA graduates. Dr Marian Iszatt-White, director of the Executive MBA at Lancaster University Management School explains, “The key outcome for many women of taking an MBA is that it validates their skills and experience, thus giving them the confidence they need to put themselves forward within their own organizational context. At a practical level, the work based assignments, which are often an integral part of Executive MBA study, give participants an opportunity to raise their profile within the organization by becoming an expert or champion for specific issues, thus shaping the direction in which they wish to go.”

Kathy Harvey, director of the Executive MBA Program Saïd Business School, University of Oxford adds, “The process of debating and learning with a group of peers, away from the pressures of the workplace, can be hugely confidence boosting for many women. It’s not just about acquiring knowledge, but about understanding how you want to be perceived in your next role and having the skills and confidence to seek the next challenge.”

Taking a step up and away from the glass cliff

Sometimes building confidence is just a question of getting that gentle nudge, the one that says, “You can do it!” As Christo Nel, program director of the Executive MBA at Nyenrode Business Universiteit points out, “One of the greatest challenges that women face in senior management and executive roles is marginalization – all too often there is only one or two women on such teams, and so they perpetually operate as a minority. During the past decade there has been a healthy increase in the number of women who participate on EMBA programs, and so they now make up a critical mass of participants. This creates a robust environment where women have the opportunity to engage with peers that face similar challenges to them, can interact much more intensely with men operating at similar levels and can actively learn how to assert themselves in a creative manner in business environments.”

Armed with strengthened support networks and relationships, deeper self-belief and a healthy dose of just going for what it is they really want, women executives are able to make great strides thanks to what they have gained and learned through their Executive MBA studies. Perhaps Huffington Post blogger Lexi Herrick sums it up best in one of her ‘Career tips every young woman should know’ columns: “Keep your head up, your coffee strong and your dreams in view, and you will achieve anything that you set your mind to.”

Including breaking that glass ceiling and keeping your distance from the glass cliff!

Written by Dawn Bournand

Dawn Z Bournand is associate director of the Executive MBA department at QS and handles editorial content for the department which includes serving as editor-in-chief of the QS TopExecutive Guide. Along with two of her QS colleagues, she recently wrote the book, QS TopExecutive Passport - Your essential document for entry into the world of Executive MBAs.  One of her favorite parts of the job is serving as an MBA/EMBA expert on webinars and panels, at conferences and in the media.

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