Women in Asia buck trend for male business courses

Amber Zhu Image copyright other
Image caption Women in Asia have overturned the image of male-dominated business courses : Amber Zhu from Shanghai

It was hailed as a success story this year when a group of leading US business schools managed to increase their proportion of female students on MBA (Master of Business Administration) courses to 40% - up from 30% a decade before.

It was seen as a step forward in the challenge to make business courses, particularly MBAs, less male-dominated.

Business schools don't just sell courses, they create an opportunity to rub shoulders with other business students, to share ideas and to build networks that are going to be useful in opening doors for future careers.

That's why business schools around the world now put so much effort into making their classes as diverse as possible in terms of nationality and background experience. But when it comes to gender, they have have been up against the long-standing male domination of the best business education.

But does this male-biased image only really apply to business schools in the West?

Because the most ambitious work on addressing gender balance seems to be taking place in Asia. Women in the region are showing a real appetite for business education.

Gender balance

Across the world, women make up 43% of those taking the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) widely used for admission to business courses. But in central and south Asia, women account for 60% of candidates.

The figure in China is even higher, with women accounting for 65% of those taking the test.

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Image caption Women are studying to take advantage of expanding Asian markets

This is translating into greater representation of women on what is still perhaps business education's best-known product - the MBA. At Fudan University School of Management in China, 59% of its full-time MBA students are female.

This increase in female enrolment at business school even seems to have reached Japan, a nation where there are still remarkably few females holding senior roles in commerce, industry or government.

At the MBA programme run in Tokyo by the Desautels Faculty of McGill University, for example, nearly half of participants are women.

"There are signs of a cautious, but genuine move here to bring more women into management roles," says director, Philip O'Neill.

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For Amber Zhu, an MBA student at the China Europe International Business Schools in Shanghai, the growth of the Chinese economy is providing more and more career opportunities for women, and as a consequence she believes they are less worried about the "return on investment" of their business studies.

"Women are confident that the experience provides good value while developing important skill sets."


Zhu sees an increasing number of women taking senior positions alongside their male counterparts.

"There really should be no gender issues - women can contribute so much, and really are worth it. An MBA is one of the best ways for women to increase their self-belief and confidence," she said.

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Image caption Business education at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has a female face

It seems that women in Asia, buoyed by the opportunities for growth in the region, have few doubts about investing in themselves and finding their place in the business world.

However, if women are making inroads into MBA programmes across the region, some of the most dramatic steps forward in terms of rebalancing the gender divide are happening at a slightly more junior level in the growing number of so-called "pre-experience" masters programmes, usually taken directly after an undergraduate degree.

At Hong Kong University of Science and Technology for example, while the percentage of female students on the full-time MBA programme is currently at 33%, women are now in the majority on the school's Masters in Management.

And on its CEMS Masters in Management - a course from a global 29 school alliance which allows students to study both at home and abroad - women now account for more than 70% of the class.

According to Chris Tsang, director of the CEMS programme at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, there are some clear reasons for this high level of interest from women at such a relatively early stage in their career. They don't want to delay and want to get on with seizing a growing number of opportunities.

"With such a rapid pace of economic development in the region, ambitious young professionals don't want to wait to develop the capabilities that can come from targeted education like this," he says.

"And a lot of women in this group benefit from the support of very close family networks which can help free them up to pursue their careers."

Global talent

The Masters in Management can also be the opportunity for young women to gain an international experience, through their studies and company internships.

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Image caption Looking up: Recruiters in Singapore say there is a strong demand for business school graduates

For Micaela Saeftel, head of the global trainee programme at the Swiss-based multinational ABB, this international exposure can really set candidates apart.

"We operate in 100 countries around the world, and really need employees who are open to working in different cultures. We like the pre-experience graduates such as CEMS students because they are open, flexible, and can adapt."

For the students, the appeal of such international programmes is straightforward enough, improving the likelihood of finding a well-paid and rewarding job.

"There's substantial and growing demand from both domestic and international companies in the Asia-Pacific region for professionals, who can combine in-depth local knowledge with a global perspective," says Steve Greenwood of Singapore-based recruiter, Berkley Group.

"At the moment there are simply not enough people who have either trained or worked overseas to satisfy this demand, which means that the war for talent in the region is likely to remain a fierce one for some time until the pipeline can start to deliver sufficient numbers."

And thanks to the region's business schools it seems that the winners of this Asian war for talent are just as likely to be women.