Women on the MBA: A World of Support

The importance of women supporting other women in both their personal and professional lives has been ingrained in me throughout my life. My mother spent her entire career breaking barriers and pulling other women up the ladder behind her – including, with her mentorship and support,  me. Because of her guidance and lifelong encouragement, I had the confidence to apply and enrol in the MBA programme. 

However, I recognise that not every woman has the advantage of such a supportive network, which underscores the need for us to foster environments where all women can access similar encouragement and mentorship. Luckily, the Smurfit School has been a wonderful place to find and foster this support. 

Five young women in smart-business dress stand in front of an Old Masters painting, smiling.
UCD Smurfit MBA Alumni Networking Event at Museum of Literature Ireland

The presence of women in MBA programs has seen significant progress in the last two decades, with the percentage in top programs increasing from less than 28% in 2002 to around 41.4% in 2022. For instance, at Smurfit, women constitute 59% of the recent EMBA and 42% of the full-time MBA cohorts. However, challenges persist as some top U.S. and European business schools report declines in women’s enrollment. An MBA greatly benefits women’s careers and salaries, with reports of substantial pay increases post-graduation. Furthermore, companies with female board directors often experience higher returns on equity, underlining the broader benefits of women in business.

Therefore, it is critical for both individuals and businesses alike that we continue to encourage women to enroll in MBA programs. However, enrolling (and graduating!) is only part of the equation. Providing women with support and encouragement once they are in business programs is equally as important as the enrollment period. 

Luckily, I have seen this happen organically in my current FTMBA cohort. While we make up less than half of the MBA class, we have an outsized impact on the cohort’s networking and extracurricular activities. One of my classmates, Kumuta Palan, organised an end-of-semester Women in the MBA luncheon for us in December, while another, Emer Walshe, arranged a Shoebox Appeal Drive for Team Hope that collected 21 boxes of gifts and essential items for children around the world. Our Class Reps in the Autumn 2023 semester were both women, as are many student organisation leaders. 

A diverse group of young women pose for a photo around a Christmas Tree
Women on the MBA End-of-Trimester Luncheon, December 2024

I noticed a distinctive throughline of support during the semester, in and out of the classroom. The cohort is tight-knit as a whole, but the women in the program have a special bond. Any hint of insecurity or a modicum of self-doubt was quickly drowned out by a vocal chorus of disagreement and support from the other women in the course. One classmate (the best in our class when it came to quantitative subjects, by the way) voiced that she was unsure if she was qualified for a career in finance and was met with a cacophony of incredulous women telling her that she was, undoubtedly, the most qualified in the class for such a career. With incredible classmates like these, it’s no surprise that I am constantly inspired by the women in our cohort every day. As Emer Walshe, our Autumn 2023 Class Representative, states: 

“Working with such inspiring and talented women really uplifts you. To know that you have a support system of people like you, who have persevered, just as you have, and understand the hard work and resilience to get to where you are, is so reassuring, and helps you to keep moving forward. I couldn’t do it without these ladies! “

This representation of women taking the lead in and out of the classroom is not only affirming for women in the current cohort but also vital for our future careers. The ability to practice consistent and successful leadership is crucial in building our confidence to take leadership roles as we move forward to our next professional endeavours. To that end, I encourage my classmates and women in future MBA cohorts to use the supportive environs of the Smurfit School as a “sandbox” to try new things, including taking on leadership positions, organising exciting events, and experimenting with new career and academic interests. As one of my classmates, Lijun Chen, put it: “I’ll try anything once!”

We must continue to encourage and support women in MBA programs and foster environments where all women can access mentorship and encouragement. Nor should we lose sight of the importance of supporting women in their post-MBA careers. Once we graduate, we must provide actionable support and mentorship to those coming after us – as we saw in the statistics above, the work is certainly not done yet. 

In conclusion, let’s raise a glass to all women who break barriers, pull others up the ladder behind them, and continue to make strides in their personal and professional lives. Cheers to the women who came before us, the women standing alongside us, and the women who will come after us. And remember, the future is female, and based on the amazing women around me, it’s also looking pretty bright!

Emily Merlino, FTMBA Class of 2024