How Female MBAs Can Shine in the Classroom and Beyond

By Catherine Groux
Posted November 28, 2012 11:00 AM

Debra Ringold explains how women can succeed in the world of business.
Debra Ringold explains how women can succeed in the world of business.
As the first female dean of Willamette University's Atkinson Graduate School of Management, Debra Ringold knows a thing or two about succeeding in the world of business as a woman. In a recent interview with U.S. News University Directory, Ringold discussed the current state of Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs and the business sector, as well as what women can do to succeed in them.

Q: Men still outnumber women in MBA programs across the country. Do you see this as an advantage or disadvantage for women?

A: Men still outnumber women in MBA programs by a significant amount, not a slight amount. The numbers I got this morning showed that for 2011, that academic year, about 36% of the people graduating with MBAs in the U.S. were women. This is still a fairly low number when you think about the fact that the majority of U.S. undergrads are female. We still have a ways to go in terms of getting that 36% to 50% or better.

I don't see it as being either an advantage or a disadvantage. I think most MBA programs, at least the highly competitive AACSB-accredited programs, are meritocracies. They are interested in talent and commitment. The women that I have known over the course of my career, the women we admit here at Willamette, are certainly up to the task. They hold their own and they excel. I have to say that gender does not seem to systematically impact performance one way or the other.

Q: Today, an increasing number of women are applying to MBA programs. Why do you think this number is rising?

A: More women are applying to graduate programs, particularly in business and management. I think there is a demographic reason for that. As I said, more women are undergrads in the U.S. than men, so that means there will be more students in that pool. That is one issue.

The other is that there is a recognition that the MBA is one of the most versatile degrees that you can pursue. Your professional degrees are medicine, law and business, and the MBA is incredibly versatile. I think women always look for flexibility, and an MBA provides that.

Q: Even though more women are pursuing MBAs than ever before, would you say business is a male-dominated industry?

A: I have not looked at the statistics in terms of employment, but it is clear that at the executive rank of many industries there is still a preponderance of men. I do think that increasingly women are getting through the glass ceiling, so I am an optimist. I see the very talented, dedicated, well-educated women graduating from MBA programs around the country today and I think they will make significant contributions to the organizations they serve. For that reason, I think they are going to be successful and make important impacts on these organizations. If, in some people's view, business and management are still male dominated, I think that circumstances are short lived. In the next generation, we will see that dissipate quite profoundly. 

Q: How can female MBAs shine in the workplace, no matter how male-dominated it may be?

A: One of the things that successful women, MBAs and otherwise, [value] is the mentoring they received from senior men in the organizations in which they work. I think identifying mentors is a very smart thing for all people to do, but particularly in a [male-dominated workplace] it may be advantageous for women to develop a mentoring relationship.

I also think that in any setting, anyone who wants to succeed has to keep their eyes on the prize. They have to work hard, they have to be comfortable taking criticism, they have to learn from that criticism, and they have to get better the next time they try. Being successful means that you work hard and you learn from your mistakes. You innovate and take risks. All of that is difficult, so finding a mentor who can help coach or be a sounding board and from whom you can take criticism is very useful for anybody in any setting.

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