By Suzie Hart

Women outnumber men for the first time in the University of Auckland's executive MBA programme - and academics say the new gender balance is making their male counterparts lift their game.

Company directors, general managers, chief financial officers and sales managers from some of New Zealand's leading organisations make up the class; just 10 of the 24 are men.

"The women love the fact that they are in the majority," says Professor Jayne Godfrey, Director of the Graduate School of Management. "They see it as a turning point. It's nice to be there at the cusp of a future of greater equality."

The MBA programme at the University of Auckland has been running since 1985 and has produced some of the country's most celebrated business leaders, including Joan Withers, chair of Mighty River Power and a leading figure in female governance.

Advertisement

Figures from the past 10 years show this year's female dominance is a spike rather than a trend, with the proportion of women in MBA classes previously varying between 16 and 38 per cent. However the number of females enrolling in undergraduate business degrees internationally has risen steadily over the past decade.

Godfrey says this is now expected to filter through to postgraduate level: "Gone are the days when undergraduate business degrees were male-dominated. The proportion has shifted to majority female in a lot of institutions and that's across the board, in accounting and finance and some of the traditionally male-dominated areas."

Women have traditionally held back on investing in education, either because they don't see the value or because they have other priorities, particularly family, Godfrey says. But as society becomes more receptive to gender equality, more women are moving into senior executive roles and seeking qualifications to match.

"Women are making more of a conscious decision about what the next step is going to be and how they can position themselves to be ready for it. They have a thirst for knowledge, which is great."

The executive MBA is a two-year programme structured to allow professionals to continue working as well as studying, with lectures held fortnightly on Fridays and Saturdays.

Gemma Collins, one of 14 women in the class, is the National Building Services Manager for Fletcher Construction and enrolled in the programme after receiving a promotion.
"Although I've been in that role for a year, I just felt that doing an MBA would formalise those skills and reinforce to myself that what I was doing was right."

Working in the construction industry, she is often the only woman in the room and was shocked to see the make-up of her class when she arrived in January.

"I expected the ratio to be about 80 per cent male, 20 per cent female, so I was very surprised, and everyone else was exactly the same. But we all think it's a really positive thing."

Advertisement

The women feel they are in a safe environment with a high "EQ", Collins says, and are more prepared to speak up and share their knowledge and experience.

"It has created a really great dynamic. Women are much more prepared to consider other views and look at things in a different light. You feel like you're amongst friends immediately."

Dr Darl Kolb, Professor of Connectivity at the Business School and one of the MBA lecturers, says the women in the class have set a high benchmark since they started in January, with lively class discussions and slick presentations. It's a competitive environment and the men are having to perform better to keep up.

"It's a generalisation but women in groups just work harder - they read the criteria and do the work required instead of thinking 'she'll be right' or taking any shortcuts."

Kolb says it will be interesting to see how they cope in the middle of the programme when the workload is high and they need to develop strategies for persisting and succeeding.

"I have no doubt that they will do fine - everyone who comes across this group says how great they are. They may just be one of those classes that we all remember."