Should Women Skip Business School?

Today, the New Yorker‘s Laura Hemphill has weighed into the recent conversations about women in MBA programs, offering the opinion that, really, women should just skip business school entirely.

Now, personally, I tend to be skeptical and a bit grumpy on the topic of MBA programs. But I really think Hemphill’s perspective is too narrow, speaks too much from a position of personal privilege, and, therefore, presents a picture of what an MBA can offer that is negatively skewed.

Hemphill got a job on Wall Street straight out of school.  That, right there, is an opportunity closed to many, if not most, women around the world.  Like it or not, an MBA still positions many women for jobs that are otherwise not open to them at all.

Hemphill measures the impact of an MBA against what she herself was able to achieve by staying in place–she ended up in the same position that MBAs entered after having spent a bunch of money on business school.  She concludes that the MBAs wasted their money. But since she doesn’t consider the possibility that those women might not have had her advantage–getting the job on Wall Street to begin with–she doesn’t realize that the chance to catch up with people who had such jobs straight out of school is the point of going to business school for some students.

She also suggests that spending time in business school would have been a waste of time for someone who, like herself, would eventually rethink their career entirely.  But what I see, among both women and men who come to school here, is a serious subset of people who are actually using the business school experience as a way to rethink their career. They accomplish this in a variety of ways.

First, it’s important to realize that, within a given business environment, most of what you learn is just the collected wisdom of people who have spent their lives in that industry, even maybe that company.  Stepping back and getting a view of that same industry from another vantage–one that is based on more observations, on a wider sample of companies, on a broader range of industries, on a greater variety of practices–can really make a difference in how you view even a job you have done successfully for some time.

Many people in business schools, though, are trying to get some perspectives on other industries or career paths besides the one they have been in.  By, essentially, retraining themselves, they hope to make a jump into an entirely different line of work or industry, not just claw their way farther up the ladder they are already on.

Two other reasons for going to business school may apply more to Oxford than other places, I don’t know.  One is going to business school to get a different view on the purposes and practices of business itself, sometimes with an intention of either (1) adapting business practices to different ends, such as in social entrepreneurship or (2) changing basic business assumptions so as to redirect pure profit-seeking toward a wider range of goals, such as environmental protection or positive social impact.  These are both goals that many women here in this program are pursuing (and also quite a few of the men).

The second is the potential to get a wider cultural view.  Again, this may be more peculiar to Oxford or even other international business programs, but I think many students here are purposely seeking to broaden their understanding of world culture and the practice of business within that landscape. A significant benefit, therefore, comes from the other people you meet.  And here I don’t just mean making connections you can exploit in your search for wealth (though certainly that happens and women need networks, too).  If a lot of people come to a business school to meet others from around the world who want to learn about the world economy from a global perspective, then they themselves create their own very interesting network for cultural sharing and future global interactions. I think that’s actually a pretty worthy reason to go.

Plus not everyone you meet at business school is an object lesson in arrested development.  At Oxford, as I am sure at other schools, you get to meet lots of people outside the B-school who are interested in stuff from philosophy to physics.  And these conversations enrich your thinking, if not your portfolio.

So, I really think it is unfair to dismiss MBA programs entirely, on the basis that (1) everyone is better off staying in whatever job they have, (2) business school is really expensive, and (3) the men will behave badly toward you while you are here.  I don’t want to deny that MBAs can be a waste of time for some people, nor do I want to detract from the observation that they are often prohibitively expensive. Certainly I do not want to contradict the plain truth that the experiences are often quite unpleasant for women. But I still think there are reasons to do an MBA.  Good reasons. For women.

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