Mommy's MBA

On some B-school campuses, women's groups are offering support for women juggling the roles of mom and MBA student

When Rebecca Williams got into Columbia Business School two years ago, she was faced with a decision that wasn't even on the radar of most of her soon-to-be classmates.

Williams, who lived in Texas at the time, had to decide whether to take her 3-year-old son with her to New York while she pursued a full-time MBA. "I didn't know of any other moms doing business school, so I chose to leave my son with my mom," said Williams, 31, who will be graduating May 13 from Columbia—coincidentally on Mother's Day—with her son, Xander, now age 5, in tow. "I wish I knew then what I know now because I would have made a completely different decision," she says.

It was a lack of information on how to handle the challenges of motherhood while in B-school that led Williams and two of her classmates, also moms, to form a campus group, Mothers in Business, devoted exclusively to exploring those issues (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/1/06, "The Return of the MBA Mom").

By forming the organization, the three students brought a once nearly invisible population on campus to the attention of fellow students, administrators, and alumni. "You wouldn't look at a fellow classmate and know they're a mom because they look like everybody else in the classroom," Williams said. "You wouldn't know they have a really different set of needs than your average student."

Critical Issue for Admissions

The club is one of a handful of groups and programs at business schools across the country that are trying to address the questions and concerns of women students who are moms, are pregnant, or are considering becoming mothers in the near future. Whether it's a lactation room on campus for breast pumping or a club where mothers can meet to hash out parenting concerns, there is a growing demand for these types of offerings on business campuses, several student-life administrators interviewed for this story said.

The issue of MBA moms is a critical one if business schools are going to reach their oft-stated goal of increasing the number of women earning MBAs. Female enrollment at business schools still hovers around 30%, according to a 2006 report by the Forte Foundation, a consortium of schools working to increase the number of women pursuing MBAs. About 35% of full-time graduate business programs and 22% of part-time programs reported special outreach efforts to attract female applicants in 2005, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC).

And if women remain a minority in business schools, the trend is even more pronounced for mothers. Even if a female student doesn't have children, the issue weighs heavily because female MBAs are often at the stage of their lives when they are deciding whether to start a family. Statistics on mothers in business schools are hard to find because parenthood is not a question typically posed to incoming students in surveys or tracked by schools, said Rachel Edgington, director of research at GMAC.

Sitting Out Happy Hour

Indeed, women put off or avoid enrolling in MBA programs because they fear that business school will make them delay marriage, delay having a child, or otherwise interfere with personal plans, according to a GMAC study on prospective women students. Still, some women, like Katherine Bose, 31, a 2006 graduate of Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, saw B-school as an ideal time to start a family. She became pregnant at the start of her first year of business school in 2004 and had her son, who is now 2, six days after her last final of her first year.

Being pregnant while in business school was exhilarating and nerve-racking at the same time, said Bose, now working as a case writer at Stanford. She was one of three women in her class who became pregnant her first year of school, she said. Her decision required certain sacrifices. She had to miss many of the social events and parties and refrain from drinking at campus functions. She sometimes felt waves of nausea during class and had to fight the urge to leave and lie down. "I remember sitting in economics during my fall quarter and feeling sick to my stomach and thinking, 'How awkward will that be to run out?'" she said.

Once she announced the pregnancy to her classmates around Thanksgiving of 2004, she became somewhat of a celebrity on campus. "I think I was a bit of a novelty for some of my classmates, especially some of the younger guys in my class who were single," she said. "I was shocked at how friendly and interested a lot of these folks were. You would think people would want to avoid the pregnant lady like the plague."

Independent Study Replaces Internship

The timing of her pregnancy proved challenging at times, she said. Her estimated delivery date was just one day after the final for her nonmarketing strategy class. Fortunately, the administration and professors were understanding and offered her flexibility with her course load and class work, she said. The school has a lactation room where mothers can breast-feed. While Bose never used the lactation room, it was nice to know it was there, she said.

When it came time to raise her newborn, Bose carved out her own maternity leave. She chose to forgo the traditional summer internship the summer of her first year, instead pursuing an independent study during her spring semester. This allowed her to stay at home with her newborn son that summer.

The prospect of becoming pregnant while in business school also appealed to Michelle Fertig, 28, one of the three co-founders of the Women in Business group at Columbia. She became pregnant during her second year of business school and gave birth 10 days before her graduation last May, carrying her daughter across the stage with her when she received her diploma. "I know that a lot of my friends thought I was crazy, but it worked out so well because I wasn't working 15-hour days and my schedule was what I wanted it to be," Fertig said.

"The Elephant in the Room"

As a pregnant mom on campus, Fertig soon bonded with several other women on campus who were simultaneously balancing motherhood and schoolwork. One of the women she met was Williams, who was eager to create an organization that addressed the unique needs of mothers in business school. Another classmate, Aliza Goldgewert, also got involved. "We thought, we know that this topic is on the minds of a lot of women. It's the elephant in the room," Williams said. "Why don't we create a space where women can actually talk about this?"

The group was able to receive funding from the school and organized a series of roundtable events and discussions. Students brought up topics such as how to talk about family during consulting and recruiting events, ways to address gaps in work history if one took time off to raise children, and stigmas associated with families. They also invited guest speakers, such as Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, to talk before the group.

The programs struck a chord with students, attracting as many as 60 women to the events. Some of the attendees were mothers, while others were young women students who were considering motherhood. "There was just a real big hunger on the part of the students to have some coaching and mentorship within the program," said Nayla Bahri, Columbia's assistant dean of MBA student life.

Partnering with EMBAs

Before long, the group teamed up with the women's group at Columbia's Executive MBA program. Many of the women in this program already had families and were eager to share their experiences and advice with the full-time MBA students, who had questions about day care and how to find the right school for their children. "We've learned these lessons a while ago and figured out how to deal with it," said Gillian Core, 30, a mom who started the Columbia women's EMBA group in January. "I went through a lot of legwork, and I didn't want someone else to have to go through what I went through."

And while dealing with case studies and infants together is one thing, tackling business school as a mother with teenage or young adult children poses its own unique set of challenges. Terri Wedge, a full-time MBA at the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver, planned her 21-year-old daughter's wedding last spring in the middle of midterms. As the date drew closer, she realized she had unwittingly scheduled the wedding on the day of her statistics final exam. Not that she let that get in her way.

"We had the 70-person wedding in my backyard, the wedding cake, the preacher, the whole nine yards, and then at 6 that night, I went and took a stats exam," said Wedge, 42, who also works full time as a quality-control compliance analyst at Aurora Loan Services, a division of Lehman Brothers. In addition to her daughter, she also has two sons, 11 and 13, and a 4-month-old grandson.

Juggling Homework with Baby

Wedge is co-founder and current president of the Daniels Graduate Women in Business chapter. During recruiting brunches for the group in the fall, she makes a point of talking about her children and grandson. Younger women have reached out to ask her how she has juggled work and family. The incoming president of the organization for next year is also a mother. "We give them insight that they wouldn't normally have," Wedge said.

How does she deal with the new challenge of being both a mother and grandmother in business school? She's learned to study for her exams while holding the baby and her computer simultaneously on her lap. "This way I can be Grandma and do my homework at the same time," said Wedge, who will graduate in June. "A big part of it is just being able to be very flexible and taking things as they come."