Women in Leadership and the Sonoma MBA

March 14, 2018

By John Stayton
Executive Director of Graduate & Executive Programs
School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University

There are compelling reasons for promoting women into organizational leadership roles. A well-known study concluded that gender (and racial) diversity on corporate boards has positive impacts on both ROI and ROA (Erhardt, et al, 2003). Women in leadership roles are more likely than men to engage in transformational leadership, which is positively related to more effective enterprise performance (Eagly, et al, 2003). Women should be seeking and landing leadership roles in our businesses. And yet, according to US News & World Reports (2017), only 39% of part-time MBA students and 32% of Executive MBA students are women. Why aren't more women applying for MBA programs and what can we do about it?

At Sonoma State University, we have been proud that, until very recently, about 50% of both our part-time and EMBA students were women. We attribute that to the way we market our programs, the focus in our programs on developing both hard and soft skills, and our North Bay region, which may be more encouraging of women to seek MBA degrees. However, we have started to see that percentage of women applicants slip in the last year. While we hope this is a short-term anomaly, we are also considering how we can encourage more women to apply for our MBA programs.

Personally, this is part of my mission for helping to create a better world. Gender-diverse leadership teams are more likely to pursue environmentally friendly policies (Glass, et al, 2016) and corporate philanthropy (Soares, et al, 2011). Since we do not favor women in the admission process, the only way to have gender-balanced programs is to have more women applicants. We also welcome applications from transgendered and other-gendered individuals.

Interestingly, women comprise the majority of students in some specialized, non-MBA business masters degrees, most notably in accounting (61%) and marketing (65%) (GMAC.com, 2016). Women are interested in business careers, but are less likely to participate in MBA programs that could move them into executive leadership roles. This may have to do with a common perception of MBA degree-holders as aggressive men who are only driven by short-term, bottom line results, and many women (and men) do not identify with that persona. This may also have to do with the "glass ceiling" created by those male leaders who may tend to hire other leaders that are like them. Why bother seeking executive-level positions if it means having to work harder than your peers for the same recognition?

In the Sonoma Professional and Executive MBA programs, we seek to create a safe space for all students to bring more of themselves to school, and hopefully to work. Our students learn how to create change in organizations in a way that is respectful, inclusive and effective. It serves our male and female students to have gender-balanced cohorts to improve their capacity for healthy, productive working relationships with teammates, bosses, and direct reports, regardless of gender. We do not want fewer men applying for our programs, but we do want more women to apply. Women do not represent a minority in our population and should not represent a minority in our boardrooms, C-suites, or business schools.



Eagly, A. and Johannesen-Schmidt, M. (2003) Transformational, Transactional and Laissez-Faire Leadership Styles: A Meta-Analysis Comparing Women and Men. Psychological Bulletin 129:4, 569-591.

Erhardt, N., Werbel, J., and Shrader, C. (2003) Board of Director Diversity and Firm Financial Performance. Corporate Governance 11:2, 102-111.

Glass, C., Cook,A. and Ingersoll, A. (2016) Do Women Leaders Promote Sustainability? Analyzing the Effect of Corporate Governance Composition on Environmental Performance. Business Strategy and the Environment 25, 495-511.

GMAC (2016) https://www.gmac.com/market-intelligence-and-research/research-insights/application-trends/where-are-women-in-graduate-business-school.aspx

Kowarski, I. (2017) https://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/top-business-schools/articles/2017-03-14/us-news-data-a-portrait-of-the-typical-mba-student

Soares, R., Marquis, C. and Lee, M. (2011) Gender and Corporate Responsibility: It's a Matter of Sustainability. Catalyst report.