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Gender balance 'aids the learning experience for all' - Gerry George

Laure Lam Hung was born and raised on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius before moving to the UK to study biology at University College London and Cambridge university. When it came to studying for an MBA, however, Ms Lam Hung chose Singapore Management University.

The choice was partly about career advancement: Singapore is a leading biotech force in Asia. But Ms Lam Hung was particularly attracted by the gender balance on the SMU course.

On average just 38 per cent of the intake across the top 100 MBA courses in this year’s Financial Times ranking were women, a figure that has barely changed in the past decade. At SMU the gender split is almost exactly 50:50.

“Being one of many women on the course makes the experience more valuable,” Ms Lam Hung says. Feeling an equal part of the class, she notes, made it easier to speak up during debates and encouraged her to aim higher.

“I have met smart, strong and kind women in my batch from whom I have learnt as much as from the men in my class,” she says.

Gender balance aids the learning experience for all, says Gerry George, dean of the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at SMU.

“More women means that even men listen more,” he says.

Gender diversity subtly changes the dynamic of turn-taking in classroom discussions, Mr George adds. “It might even improve empathy in engaging with issues, according to some of our faculty who teach negotiation or strategy,” he says.

Tom Robinson, chief executive of AACSB international, the business school accreditation body, notes that as far as diversity is concerned in China’s case, the government has actively sought to create more employment opportunities for women.

As for Singapore, he adds: “I have personally observed that they are very education focused and very progressive. The country is a true meritocracy, where ability and knowledge trump biases.”

Another reason for the higher percentage of women in many Asian business schools could be that the schools are younger than their western counterparts and so have been able to create teaching methods and case studies that are less male focused, says Juan Fernandez, MBA director at Shanghai’s China Europe International Business School. Here, 40 per cent of the MBA cohort are women.

“While we have not set out to specifically target female students, we do recognise the value of having as much diversity [as possible],” Mr Fernandez says. “We have never had to combat inertia in the campus culture that has leaned towards a male-dominated representation in the student body.”

Ceibs has offered a Women Leadership Scholarship for first-year students since 2012. But Mr Fernandez stresses that this is just one of several financial incentives designed to increase the diversity of the class, not just by gender but also by ethnicity and background.

“We certainly see an equal balance of interest from both female and male prospects from day one of the recruitment seasons year after year but, to be honest, I believe this trend is catching up across all top-tier programmes, regardless of location.”

Ceibs also has an active Women’s Leadership Network club. Last year, this group helped organise an Asian Women in Leadership Summit, held in Shanghai. It was one of the club’s activities to celebrate International Women’s Month, focused on promoting empowerment, career development and societal change for women.

Mr Fernandez notes that neither the WLN nor Ceibs are pushing for the advancement of any one group over another. “At Ceibs we aim to provide opportunities for both genders to excel,” he says.

China is unusual in that it has a high proportion of female managers compared with other Asian countries . A survey by recruitment company Hays found that 36 per cent of management roles are held by women in China, compared with an average of 28 per cent elsewhere in Asia.

Bella Lui, who studied accountancy for her undergraduate degree at Toronto’s Rotman University, has since returned to her native China to study for an MBA at Ceibs.

Ms Lui says she appreciates the diversity of voices in the classroom, but is more interested in the spread of backgrounds, nationalities and cultural perspectives among her fellow masters degree students than their gender. Most of the students on her degree at Rotman were women, she notes.

Similarly, gender diversity was only one factor behind Nurgül Karacan’s decision to leave her family in Switzerland to study for an MBA at SMU.

A 33-year-old Swiss citizen born to Kurdish parents, she found a similar gender balance on the MBA course to that of her undergraduate degree in international management from Zurich University.

The key selling point for her of the 11-month programme was that it enabled her to get back to work more quickly than other MBA programmes, which lasted two years.

Although Ms Karacan had planned to return to Switzerland immediately after graduation, during her internship with an international bank in Singapore she was struck by how more gender balanced the company was than those she had worked for back home. She aims to spend a few years working full-time in Singapore because she feels it will help her career progress faster than in Switzerland.

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