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Women in Business: Glass Ceilings and the MBA

How an MBA Can Break Down Barriers to the Boardroom


Today, women are excelling in senior roles more than ever before. However, there is still a long way to go when it comes to equality in the workforce.

Professional businesswomen are faced with the frustrating phenomenon of the ‘glass ceiling’; despite their unwavering commitment and clear ability, they are routinely denied access to the upper reaches of senior management and their career progression grinds to an unjustifiable halt.

In a world dominated by males, fueled by their connections and populated by other male colleagues with whom they share a history, it is too easy for a solitary female to be side-lined in the recruitment rugby scrum that forms around top management positions.

In this article, I’ll examine the reasons that an MBA – the gold standard of professional business qualifications – is the stamp of approval that can help women to break down barriers to the boardroom.



Sociologist Natasha Mauthner, Chair in Management Studies and Director of Research at the University of Aberdeen, shares her insight into the ways in which gender can impact our perceptions of leaders and how this leads to obstacles for women in business:

“Probably a good way of illustrating that is through an exercise that I use when I teach students – I teach several courses on gender issues in organisations – and I often get my students at the beginning of a course to do an exercise in which I ask them to imagine a person in a leadership position and I ask them to either describe in words what that person looks like, what they’re doing, what they’re wearing, or they can draw a picture of that person.

It’s quite a revealing exercise because even though these are students who are doing a course on gender in organisations, invariably, what they describe and what they depict is a man, sitting at a desk, wearing a suit, sometimes smoking a cigar.

And so, I think what that tells us is that the image that we have of leadership is very much a male image. It also tells us that, indeed, the leadership role itself is also being thought about in a particular way, in terms of what we might call a ‘heroic leadership’ model – with a single person leading a troop of people behind them.

I think the reason it is quite an instructive exercise to do is that it immediately shows us the kinds of stereotypes that come into play when we talk about gender in leadership. So, we have stereotypes around gender and the gender nature of the ways in which people dress and behave, and of course we also have issues around leadership stereotypes.

The phrase often used within academic studies to capture this is this idea of: ‘Think manager. Think man’. So, it’s the coming together of gender stereotypes with leadership stereotypes that tell us that, in a way, the leadership role tends to be thought of in male terms, in terms of who occupies that position, but also in terms of the characteristics of leaders.

I think that’s one of the main issues that comes out consistently within research studies on gender in leadership, is that those stereotypes act as a major barrier to women accessing senior leadership and senior management roles.”


Breaking down barriers


We operate within a period in history when both the legal obligation and social commitment to equality per se is ubiquitous. However, although the modern business world seems willing and able to embrace the concept of gender equality in theory, ironically it appears to be incapable of applying its principles in practice.


Women are less likely to receive the first critical promotion to manager—so far fewer end up on the path to leadership—and they are less likely to be hired into more senior positions. Women also get less access to the people, input, and opportunities that accelerate careers. As a result, the higher you look in companies, the fewer women you see.”

Women in the Workplace (2016)


Although matters have improved drastically since the first wave of feminism in the late nineteenth century, the unfortunate reality is that gender equality in business is still a slow, uphill climb. Legislation is one thing, attitudes and long-established practice built up over several generations are quite another  – indeed, given the nature of the contemporary business landscape, it will be some time before we see widespread gender equilibrium in the rarefied atmosphere of the traditional boardroom.

To achieve anything approaching this state of enlightenment, the business world needs to recognise gender inequality as a genuine problem; one that is potentially damaging to the ethos of any company, irrespective of size.

Further, there must be a willingness to commit to the introduction of industry relevant staff training and educational programmes that facilitate more effective communication; those that concentrate on developing the competencies of the individual.

This will result in all participants having the opportunity to achieve their true potential while forging the professional connections and personal links that will enable them to engage with, and contribute to, business on a global scale, regardless of gender.

As a female director on a 50:50 gender split board, I am aware of just how atypical my position is; I encounter very few boards with a similar composition.

I also know how difficult it would have been for me to have undertaken an MBA programme whilst bringing up my family and establishing my business. Now that it is genuinely possible to do all of these things concurrently, as long as you are prepared to put in the effort, the future of women as senior managers appears much more positive.


How will studying for an MBA benefit you?


Studying for an MBA is challenging and it will take commitment to organise your lifestyle to accommodate your new study schedule, but you will certainly find it rewarding. It will benefit you in a number of ways, both personally and professionally:


  • Boosts personal development

You will develop a keen and analytical mind – one that brings a fresh perspective and new approach to the business world. Successful completion of an MBA will also endow you with the professional survival skills that are essential to contemporary business management, as well as the confidence to employ these effectively.

  • Improves communication skills

You will be taught how to interact with their audience and potential clients in a precise and coherent manner. The art of giving an effective presentation or pitch is one that is highly sought-after in the business community. The MBA programme provides all the knowledge and techniques needed to master this invaluable skill.

  • Broadens subject knowledge

You will develop the ability to analyse business situations within their broader context, far beyond your own perspective, and then apply the management techniques and processes you have acquired during your studies to achieve successful outcomes.

  • Enables career mobility

You will acquire accredited skills within the core areas of management. These skills, and the knowledge of how to implement them effectively, are highly desirable in all sectors across the globe, making you a priceless asset to most industries.

  • Enhances professional credibility

The MBA inspires trust in potential business partners. Whether electing to work independently or as part of a larger organisation, the possession of an MBA serves as an endorsement of your professional capabilities within a specialised discipline.

  • Facilitates networking

During your studies, you will meet people who will prove vital to your future success: potential business partners, recruitment agents, entrepreneurs and prospective employees. Start to compile a database of contacts as soon as you can – it will prove vital at every stage of your career.

  • Accelerates career progression

The MBA programme comprises tuition in specific, core disciplines including: marketing, finance, human resources, statistics, and industry related technology and information systems. Mastering skills in these areas will enable you to operate within a larger field and, by gaining access to several business sectors including the public sector, to choose how you wish to advance your career.


  • Enables you to become your own boss

Equipped with the level of business expertise that the first-time entrepreneur would find enviable, many MBA graduates opt to start their own business. The MBA programme enables you to gain the knowledge and skills that are essential to successfully starting, maintaining and developing a business.


  • Drastically improves your earning potential

There is no doubt that having an MBA significantly improves your chances of attaining a salary level that will be denied to most graduates with a bachelor’s degree. In the main, upgrading your degree to an MBA has the potential to double your salary.


On average, an MBA graduate in the USA can anticipate a short-term salary rise of around 35-45% with this rising to an increase of 55-65% within five years, when compared to pre-MBA levels.

In the UK, the London Business School recorded an average weighted salary of 97k GBP, while the Association of MBAs (AMBA) quoted that the average salaries of UK MBA graduates from AMBA accredited schools are in the region of 82k GBP per annum.

The most financially successful of all MBA graduates are based in Europe where the average salary is over 100k EUR per annum.


The MBA and the future for businesswomen


For the female in business, achieving an MBA can provide the contacts, competencies, confidence and clarity of vision that is expected of the contemporary business professional who aspires to senior management and board positions. In addition, the advent of the internet and digital disruption it has caused has been profound.

In the business world, long-established, traditional models have been rendered obsolete and new models based on emerging technologies have taken their place. These new, digital models need a new breed of business person to embrace the fresh opportunities they provide and drive companies forward.

Where once business was exclusively conducted in person and deals concluded with a handshake, in a digital world, communication can take many forms. The ‘Old Boys’ Network’ is beginning to lose its strength in favour of a more equal working environment in which gender is not an issue.



The flexibility of the part-time University of Aberdeen Online MBA (Global) is particularly suited to women in the workforce who often face the challenge of having to manage multiple responsibilities.

With no need for a career break, the online MBA (Global) programme provides the ideal way to become a digitally competent manager, equipped with the tools and knowledge to succeed in the boardroom.

Want to know more about your MBA options? Click here to find out more about the University of Aberdeen Online MBA (Global) programme.


This article was written by Fiona Crosbie,
co-founder and director of the Interactive Design Institute

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