John Key's old mate Ian Fletcher was at the front of the room spinning warm fuzzies about that nice GCSB and I was sharing pastries with one of the first women to graduate with an MBA from the University of Auckland.

We were at one of the excellent monthly breakfast meetings run by the Graduate School of Management at the University of Auckland. Eggs, bacon and a stimulating speaker (bankruptcy expert Michael Stiassny was the month before; the New Zealand Venture fund's Franceska Banga before that) with a mix of alumni, current MBA students and business guests gathered to listen.

My table companion, business development expert Maree Neal, graduated in 1985, almost three decades before my intake of 2013. But the number of women signing up for the degree has barely shifted in the years since.

My first year group included two other women, both of whom had to delay their degrees when the mix of work and family pressures became too much. In the course this year are three other women out of a class of 22. I'm the only mum. In Maree's year - only the second year of the University of Auckland's MBA course - three women graduated out of a class of 30. Why do so few women take up the MBA challenge?


Joan Withers, one of the country's most driven and successful female business leaders says she did nothing but work and study for the two years it took to complete her MBA at Auckland. Her husband and teenage son took care of the rest of life. Many of my male colleagues at uni have a partner who is at home fulltime with kids. "It's a conflict," says Maree, who did her degree pre-children. "You're working at midnight or on weekends and there just isn't time to stop for a sick child or other family dynamics."

I was lucky enough to have a husband who encouraged me to quit my job and take on contract work I could do from home when I decided to go to university for the first time at the age of 42. We've survived thanks to an interest-free student loan, reducing the cost of our childcare and giving up a winter holiday in the sun. Yes, that sounds privileged, but sacrificing two years' income for a course that's as much about personal development as it is about business skills and savvy is a choice too few women, in my opinion, make.

Is it worth it? "I think if you're looking to advance up the corporate ladder, yes it is," says Maree. "If you are looking to do something entrepreneurial and you need a device to skill yourself up, yes. But you can't do it and not be committed." She was working in social work when the opportunity arose, and has had a career in business strategy and development since leaving. Now she brings business clients back to the university when the monthly breakfast speaker entices.

So often women put other parts of their life before their own development. Kids take precedence, obviously. Partners do too. And work, whether fulfilling or not. It can seem like the most selfish choice to make, to forgo a sizeable sum of money and spend it on your own midlife education. But an MBA is a degree not only in business skills but in your own potential.

The women I have met who have made that choice, have benefitted enormously, and sacrificed much to achieve it. And that, I think, is part of the learning. Working hard on yourself and seeing value in yourself is something that does not always come naturally to women. Investing in yourself can seem inherently selfish.

Maree wonders how many companies sponsor female employees into the MBA, versus the number that pay for executive men. I wonder how many women ask their bosses for that financial support. And how many truly believe they are worth it, sponsored or not.