Monday, December 2, 2013

Women in MBA: Show 'Em (What You're Made Of)


An article our Dean recently wrote on perceptions of the MBA somehow reminded me of one of the Hillary Duff's chick flicks I watched a couple of years ago, 'Beauty and the Briefcase'. Starred as a fashion journalist Duff was given a mission by Cosmopolitan to write an article on "finding love in the business world".  Undercover.  On her first day of secretarial 'work' at a financial company in New York, a comment she made (of course, gleefully) was, "There's so many men!"  

Not only the business industry, I'm not sure if it probably takes a longer time than we expect to overcome the traditional perception that men still outnumber women in MBA classrooms. Anyway, I'm now sharing here my experience of and thoughts over some 10 weeks' old in the full-time MBA. 

A (not so) male-dominated MBA program: my experience so far
We were told that our batch, Ben Eibhinn, is different; no locals, very much diverse (both in nationalities and professional background) and... we have more female students.  Although I had always been part of a multinational working culture, the diversity of our class has so far taught me:

1.  Femininity and leadership: not about being 'too nice'
I think I'll make an extreme example. Growing up being trained how to dress well by my royal, protective mother, I'm practically seen most of the time 'looking nice' and neat (as girls normally point out to me).  Long-haired, with a typical Indonesian obedience, taking seriously all tasks given, introverted, far from competitive nature and soft-spoken, an immediate (male) manager of a past job labelled me as "Miss Nice Girl". Easily. 

Although I have long realized that Singapore has one of the worst workplaces in the region due to bad office politics, that was quite the first time I realized how femininity could be perceived as a sign of weakness... and how wrong such perception is.  I did leave the company -- I left its leadership, to be precise. 

More women are getting through the glass ceiling as more and more female leaders rising to top position in business.  Yet, primary biases on female leaders of being too nice and emotional still exist; all the debate and studies on gender and leadership continue to intrigue and challenge our perceptions.  Hopefully. 

In the classroom context, both academics and my fellow classmates are there to equip me to be an effective leader.  I found myself from time to time pondering over the shape of a leadership style that is both genuine in its femininity and being effective as I feel comfortable of being myself.  I'm still working on it. 


2.  Female leaders and their mentor(s)
Mentorship exists in MBA programs.  I was encouraged reading articles on how female MBAs are apparently benefited from pursuing mentorship even beyond the classroom as successful female leaders are known to choose their mentor at their workplace, mostly senior men in the organization. Leaders are constantly put under the spotlight, receive criticism as they take risks and make mistakes; and leaders work hard to learn from all of those. It makes sense to me to have a mentor as a sounding board and whom you can take feedback, encouragement from.

Speaking of which, I am grateful to have access to few selected men as lifetime mentors, although they're now scattered in different parts of the world.  An example is the most recent major life decision I made: to choose taking an MBA in a country foreign to me.  Either a South African or a Malaysian pastor in their 30s, a humble busy American businessman in his early 50s, fathers of a couple of friends (American and Srilankan) in their 50s and 60s are the men I took out of my rather limited list of qualified senior men I purposefully went to for an opinion. 
And now, I am more than thankful to have and treasure a male mentor who takes me seriously in aiming for a distinction.  


To female (future) MBAs and leaders; shine. Show 'em what you're made of.  No matter how male-dominated it could be.



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