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Eight hours at the office. Diapers. Dinner. And then, case studies? For many working women with children, an MBA may seem like a far off dream that’s just not a part of their reality as a mom. But for two years’ worth of hard work, many business women are finding that it’s one of the smartest decisions they can make, not just for their professional lives, but for their families.

Is an MBA Out of Reach for Working Moms?

The tuition facts can’t be denied. An MBA is expensive and time consuming. The average total tuition for a top-20 business school is just over $100,000. And for working moms, there’s the additional expense of child care, on top of the late nights and burnout. Additionally, a Harvard study found that women with MBAs disproportionately suffer from the “mommy penalty,” earning 41% less than male MBAs after taking 18 months off from their careers to have children. Another study from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business suggests that women with MBAs are more likely to drop out of the workforce to become stay at home moms than doctors or lawyers.

With these dreary statistics, it would be easy to write off the MBA as something that moms just don’t have the time or resources to pursue. But Liesl Riddle, an Associate Dean at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says that an MBA is more than just a worthwhile pursuit, it’s a program with resources and rewards that working moms are in a unique position to appreciate and benefit from.

Targeting a “Disenfranchised” Market

MBAs provide working moms (and dads) with an incredible degree of flexibility, both in educational options and ultimately, career choice. Part time, executive, and online MBAs offer flexibility when it comes to actually completing the degree. As schools like George Washington University (GWU) increasingly offer highly tailored and flexible MBA degree options, more moms are able to successfully pursue the MBA degree. In fact, when designing their online MBA, GWU specifically identified mothers as a target market.

“In the newly launched online MBA program, when we were identifying our main target market, one in particular was the stay at home mom, or stay at home parent. And I think that’s an important segment to market programs to, because in so many ways, without online learning options, this is a part of the population that really is disenfranchised from a quality education in many cases, particularly those with young children at home. In addition to that, there are single parents for whom the child care costs are just too high,” said Riddle. “These programs, in many ways, offer opportunities for degree-based learning to go way beyond the open-enrollment courses you can take with Coursera, where you can really get a degree, but also a full co-curricular program. So, we help the distance student, the stay at home workforce, to really build the next stage in their careers.”

Riddle added MBA moms tend to not engage in alumni networking, social networking, student clubs, or seminars on campus, which means that that they’re really missing out the full program that can enrich their learning and provide them with valuable experience. GWU will be rolling out several online offerings in this vein, and will be matching distance students in a 1+1 mentor program, offering digital roundtable events with experts, alumni networking, and other events that support professional and social networking and development.

“GWU has set out to design a set of experiences students can participate in from their living room that mimics as close as possible to these types of events,” Riddle said. And it’s not just online MBA moms that benefit from these offerings: on-campus students, moms and otherwise, who do not have the time to stick around for evening events can sign on from home as well and take part in the engagement.

Support for MBA Moms

For working parents, there’s a need for support outside the classroom as well. The sacrifices are different for each family, but an MBA may mean fewer or shorter vacations, cutting back on extracurricular activities, and a shift in responsibilities. It’s important to set out clear expectations for who is going to do what, and when. For many MBA moms, the day to day responsibilities like meal planning, grocery shopping, and lunches may need to shift to dads or domestic partners.

“Having those frank conversations, and really doing a simulated look at what those first few months might look like on a day to day basis is a good reality check for, ‘Are we as a family really ready for this?’” Riddle said.

Riddle recommends building a support system that includes:

  • Women MBA International, an organization that offers extensive resources to female MBAs, including conferences with excellent speakers, professional development, and networking experiences.
  • A professional network of both men and women in your chosen industry.
  • A social or personal network of female friends and fellow parents that can provide softer support, including study playdates and babysitting co-ops.
  • A mentor, ideally a woman who is just ahead of where you are personally and professionally.
  • Still, the burden of support doesn’t fall completely on students and families themselves. Schools are also doing a lot to make things easier for working parents, whether it’s setting up family networks, providing child care, or taking care of small details like convenient lactation rooms. At the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, university-sponsored family housing is available to graduate students, as is a nationally accredited child care program for children aged 3 months to 7-years-old, making it possible for working MBA moms to find plenty of support right on campus. MBA families can even join the Partners Club at Haas, a group that offers support and resources for families transitioning to life in the UC Berkeley community. Similarly, Kellogg School of Management offers a Joint Ventures club, in which Kellogg families can get to know one another, hosting TGIF social events that include partners and children. Breastfeeding moms studying with the Henry B. Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa enjoy access to more than 30 different lactation rooms, typically equipped with their own hospital-grade pumps, sinks, chairs, and in some cases, even refrigerators, making pumping breast milk on campus simple and convenient for working and studying moms.In addition to online offerings, campuses are also putting support programs in place specifically for female MBA students and working moms. At GWU, Riddle is Co-Faculty Director of Women on the Board, an executive education program that specializes in corporate board placement for women. Participants in this program are in residence three times a year, and while they’re at GWU, they’re brought into classes and student club activities to engage women in the MBA program.

The Value of an MBA Career for Working Mothers, and the Value of Working Mothers

An MBA can be a platform for a career in a number of different industries and organizational settings, allowing women to choose the path that works best for their family. According to Riddle, many of GWU’s students who are working moms pursue an MBA specifically so that they can become entrepreneurs, making it possible for them to dictate their own working hours and settings and create the work/life balance that they really want.

“Some of our most amazing students are working moms who are getting that degree to be an entrepreneur, and they already know how to multitask, and juggle, and prioritize, because of their lives, and they just apply that to work. And those skills, again, are essential for successful entrepreneurship.”

Although we often think of an MBA student as someone who is currently employed and working to reach the next level in their career, the MBA degree represents a great opportunity for parents who may have left the workforce, but want to come back and gain foundational skills that they can apply across different industries. At GWU, students are encouraged to choose extensive electives and activities that allow them to gain an “MBA Plus” experience in order to differentiate themselves in the marketplace as they retool their careers.

Many working moms, and women in business, look to leaders like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer as role models — and Riddle believes we’ll see many more like them. Although they are exceptional women, they are not exceptions to the rule.

“Challenges in the global economy are so great, we can no longer afford to always have just one sex at the table. The reality of it is, we need the best minds at the table to solve today’s problems,” said Riddle, “I think the culture is really changing to be more accepting of the working mom.”

As more workplaces realize the value of the working parent, more they in turn are realizing that they need to do a better job in supporting working parents. For employers, working moms are seeking out organizations that are willing to support them, especially with small but important benefits like lactation rooms for new mothers, maternity leave, day care, and unlimited sick time. Many of the top companies on Working Mother‘s 100 Best Companies to Work For are also in the upper echelon of the Fortune 500.

“It takes an awful lot of organization, resilience, and energy, and those three variables are the things that often make women successful in leadership roles,” said Riddle. “So I think it is really no surprise that we are seeing successful innovators at the top who are not only good leaders, but also good parents.”

The Entire Family Benefits from an MBA

Finally, what about the children? “One of the great benefits of increasing numbers of women in MBA programs is that, by virtue of that happening, we are also exposing our youth, their children, to the idea that business is for women, that advanced degrees in business are for women,” said Riddle. “We need to take our workforce and try to show them: this is where you’re going, regardless of gender. This is how we get the best minds at the table and we quit having the discussion about who is best to lead, men or women, and we get down to the more important question: Who is the best mind to have at the table, and who is the best leader? That’s where we need to get to as a society.”

So, is an MBA right for working moms? The answer is different for every family. Although the risks and effort are great, so is the reward. The value and flexibility of an MBA for working moms is seemingly becoming too great to easily dismiss, as is the value of women in the upper echelon of business.