We were gently warned during the week one induction course that our lives would change drastically both during and following the MBA. For many of us, that meant our freedom as we knew it was over – at least for the next two years anyway. Starting with the GMAT, followed by year one of the EMBA, the last twelve months have been thought provoking, exhausting and exhilarating.


Just a few weeks ago, we were in the midst of exams while counting down the days until we could stop and take a deep breath and finally relax. The thought brings to mind a famous quote by Nelson Mandela – “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”. I have certainly cast off my chains and will make the most of a summer that will inevitably be a sprint rather than a marathon.

The final part of the quote however continues to resonate. My new found freedom, and possibly the added impact of the result of the recent equality referendum, has led me to reflect on equality and inevitably that infamous glass ceiling. There have been many articles and debates about gender inequality over the last number of years. However, the result of the recent referendum has told us that, in Ireland at least, most people place a high value on equality.

While deciding which MBA program to undertake, if any at all, the ratio of men to women struck me as unusually unbalanced and slightly daunting. However my mind was set at ease following the Smurfit open evening in collaboration with Image Magazine. The room was filled with approximately 100 young enthusiastic, intelligent but slightly tentative women. In the mid-week EMBA class alone, the male to female ratio is approximately 5:1 a similar ratio to most business schools. Only four of the top twelve business schools have 40% or more female students.


While I had reservations initially, I made it through the entire first year without really considering the fact that I was in the minority. The MBA for far too many years has been incorrectly portrayed as a ‘boys club’ full of intense rivalry and competition and an ongoing giant battle of egos. I cannot say, with certainty that no competition occurred within the course however I can attest to the fact that it was limited to a healthy rivalry between groups and even classes. For some reason, the mid-week and weekend EMBA classes insist on sitting at opposite ends of the room any time they are together. I must admit though, that this is probably purely down to familiarity rather than anything else.

While chatting with friends over the past twelve months, it struck me that maybe not as many women as men want to reach the top tiers of business or give up their ‘freedom’ for two years. Those sentiments were echoed by the female partners at the Big Four Accounting Practices interviewed by the authors of an article that continues to resonate with me any time gender inequality or the infamous glass ceiling is mentioned.


That article, “Through the Glass Ceiling” was co-written by UCD’s Niamh Brennan and Claire Miller for the February 2014 issue of Accountancy Ireland, honestly and genuinely questioned gender inequality. It is not a feminist’s portrayal of the world but a realistic and welcome authentic view of women in business.

Something I have often contemplated but was reluctant to voice is the suggestion that the focus by firms on diversity & engagement in recent years may have introduced an element of positive discrimination favouring women. The need to satisfy certain quotas isn’t equality, and certainly makes bad business sense. So after years of fighting for equality, have we gone a step too far? Who wants to be promoted purely because they are male, female, black, white, young or old rather than on merit? It is time the focus is reengineered to equality rather than filling quotas or being seen as being a diverse employer. At the end of the day, the best person for the job, team or Board should be chosen.

In summary, my initial concern about being one of a small group of women among a big group of aggressive egotistical men on the MBA program was completely unfounded and entirely unjustified. At Smurfit I have been treated by the MBA program staff, the lectures and my course colleagues with the upmost respect and absolute professionalism and have never been positively or negatively discriminated. While only half way through the journey, I can also honestly say that the friends I have made and continue to make during my MBA will be friends for life.

Dorothy Chestnutt ~ Executive MBA, Year 1