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Business and Motherhood: Mind the Gap

So long, June Cleaver: The days when a woman's primary job was running a picture-perfect household--leaving her husband to bring home the metaphorical bacon--have passed. Today, millions of U.S. women have traded in their aprons for business suits and a career, and even many stay-at-home mothers eventually return to the workforce. Yet despite this shifting paradigm, women are still notably underrepresented in the business world.

Take October 2011, for instance, when news headlines hailed that the number of women heading Fortune 500 companies hit an all-time high. Their share? Just 3 percent, roughly the same proportion of women CEOs throughout all U.S. companies. Meanwhile the New York Times reported that male business students outnumber their female counterparts significantly despite business schools' efforts to minimize the disparity. Why the gap?

"There's the idea of the ol' boys' club, of course, and the fact that women aren't as likely as men to select majors and advanced training in areas vital for success at the top," said Dr. Deanna Cole, MBA, PsyD and a mom who works from home while caring for her children. "But it also relates, at least in part, to the multiple roles women juggle as both professionals and caregivers."

In other words, for many women, the gender divide does not begin in the office or the classroom, but at home.

Business vs. biology: The clock is ticking

Family or career. The dilemma is not a new one, particularly among women who, according to the U.S. Census, are far more likely to take the role of stay-at-home parent than men. It can also explain why some women forgo or delay earning business degrees and and launching their careers: Their biological clocks are ticking, and those ventures are known for their time commitment and cutthroat intensity.

"An MBA requires time and dedication," said Debbie Carreau, MBA, mom and president of Inspired HR Ltd. "One needs to be prepared to study up to 30-plus hours a week."

For many moms, squeezing in a shower or healthy meal between the kids' homework and Little League practice is challenging enough, so the additional demand of launching a career or degree program could seem overwhelming. Some worry they will be spread too thin, and struggle to remain attentive mothers or wives.

"As women, we want to be successful everywhere - successful wives, mothers, housekeepers and in our careers, and that is difficult in and of itself," said Jennifer Holder, MBA, mom and president of CornerStone Closets. "Throw business school into the mix and it becomes that much more difficult."

Time management is certainly one barrier, but there are other factors at play. Just as some moms worry about how school or work will impact their family life, they also worry about how motherhood will, in turn, impact their career potential.

"There is a fear of putting family in front of career because of fear of not getting ahead in that career," said Cole. "I don't think I have been treated differently by my colleagues because I am a mom. However, I would be lying if I said I didn't think twice about making it common knowledge that I stay at home with my kids."

Even when a mom earns her degree and puts in 110 percent at the office, persistent stereotypes could work toward limiting advancement.

"I believe that women are underrepresented in the business world because of the view that we will leave the business world to care for families," said Holder, who noted that all women, not just moms, must battle certain perceptions to get ahead in the workplace. "Women are still viewed as nurturers and not shrewd negotiators."

Still, many successful women MBAs prove that with a little determination, motherhood and business can go hand-in-hand. The key is to find a way to make it work for you.

B-school for moms: Making it work

The decision to tackle motherhood and business school can be a trying, but manageable venture. A strong support system and a few (or several) helping hands can make all the difference, but so can choosing the right business program in the first place. Some schools offer accelerated programs, which are an ideal solution for any student who wants to maximize their time, including busy moms. Part-time or evening programs are another solution, as are online MBA programs that allow moms to study while the kids are in school or bed.

This type of program "was the best (option) with a young family because it was predominantly online and provided the flexibility I needed to work full time and raise my family," said Carreau.

Timing is another consideration. Some women prefer to finish their education before becoming mothers, while others pursue them as their children become more independent. As for establishing a business career while you have young children at home, sometimes you may have to recalibrate your expectations.

"I choose to be with my kids first and foremost and that means certain professional sacrifices," said Cole. "But, this phase of life is just that, a phase, so, I keep plugging along professionally to maintain my own personal sense of career satisfaction and keep my feet wet."

"I used to have the fear that if I had a call to return and my two-year-old was screaming in the background [I would] look unprofessional, but I am over it now," Holder said. "I get my work done how I have to get it done. People are very understanding for the most part."

Women and business school: Why it's worth it

There is no denying the challenge for moms to balance their desire to raise a family with their drive to launch a successful business career. Still, the hardship can pay off in the long run, both financially and in terms of personal satisfaction.

"I am able to provide the family that I love so much with a life that I think they deserve because of my career," Holder said. "It is never easy, and it is always exhausting, but it is always worth it."

As MBA programs continue to make accommodations for and recruit those considering the mommy-track, perhaps more women will consider these benefits and take the steps toward MBA achievement.