But motherhood trumps business career: survey

Ten years ago, Mary Ann Turcke was a civil engineer for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation in Kingston. She worked as a project manager on teams that designed highways and bridges. These days, Turcke works for Bell Canada in Toronto. She is vice-president of customer experience and operations for the small to medium business sector, and manages a team of 1,000 employees.

What launched her in a whole new direction professionally, says the 40-year-old executive, was a master's of business administration, which she earned at Queen's University in Kingston in 1997.

That year of study was a grind. She had to quit her job. She had to borrow about $30,000 to cover tuition, which has since risen to more than $50,000. She had a six-month-old daughter and spent many nights and most weekends working with a team of fellow students on assignments.

"I would leave school to pick up my daughter," she recalls. "I'd tell my teammates to come over to my place at 7. There's food and beer. We'd work till 11 or 12 at night. It was well worth it."

Earning an MBA is a daunting task, but business leaders put great stock in the degree, according to a recent survey of 400 Canadian executives, conducted by Toronto-based Environics Research for the Queen's school of business. Almost 80 per cent of those who participated in the poll said that, all other things being equal, they would hire a candidate with an MBA over another without one.

"Every few years a chorus on the sidelines pipes up to question the value of an MBA," say Dean David Saunders. "So we put the question directly to those who really matter - business leaders."

There was another reason for the survey, though. Year after year, the Queen's MBA programs, as well as those offered by universities across the country, attract far more male than female students. Queen's has five different fields of study, and typically only 20 to 25 per cent of the candidates are women. At some schools, that figure is as low as 15 per cent.

"Canada cannot compete in a global marketplace if half of the nation's potential talent pool feels discouraged from pursuing the crucial business training that comes with an MBA," says Shannon Goodspeed, director of one of the Queen's programs.

The Environics survey was conducted partly to find out what is preventing young professional women from taking MBAs. Thirty-six per cent of the female executives who took part identified family responsibilities as the main obstacle. Just under 20 per cent cited the cost and six per cent pointed to a lack of female role models.

Every university has a different approach to the MBA. At Queen's four of five of the programs are offered on a part-time basis, over a 12- to 15-month period, for people who have jobs. Students must travel to Kingston for a few weeks of in-class instruction, but most of the teaching and much of the project work is handled through video conferencing.

Regardless of how the programs are offered, the workloads are extraordinary. On average, it takes three to five hours work to prepare for every hour of instruction, Saunders says. Some video-conferencing sessions last all day Friday and Saturday and there are two per month.

Students must devote the other two weekends each month to working on projects with their teams.

Most people enroll in MBA programs when they are in their late 20s or early 30s. That is about the time professional women start thinking about the biological clock and decide to start families. Those who choose to pursue an MBA must juggle full-time jobs, young families and an extremely heavy course load.

Unquestionably, the rewards can be great. Goodspeed says many students form lasting friendships and establish networks of contacts that can serve them for years to come.

For most, though, the demands are too high and the sacrifices are too great. Even with an accommodating employer and an understanding spouse, there remains a fundamental conflict between the demands of family and the desire to get ahead in the workplace.

The Environics survey and Queen's MBA enrolment figures demonstrate that, when push comes to shove, motherhood trumps career most of the time.

(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at jenish@businessedge.ca)