It is predicted that at some point in the next few months the number of women in the workplace in the United States will, for the first time, rise to more than 50 per cent of the workforce.
In member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, about half of all university graduates are women, while growing gender equality in the home and workplace has underscored an increase in the number of women enrolling on MBA programmes in Hong Kong over the past five years, with the proportion now comprising just under half of an average class intake.
The increase in economic and social independence of women has also been partly responsible for the rise in women numbers on MBA programmes here.
Part-time MBAs have emerged as the perennial favourite for most women applicants who, needing to juggle career commitments and family obligations, find the flexible format of block teaching and the choice of weekend or weekday study more suitable.
The proportion of women on the MBA in international management run by the University of Hong Kong's School of Professional and Continuing Education (HKU Space), in collaboration with the School of Management, Royal Holloway, University of London, has, for example, reached about 60 per cent since its launch in 2001, due partly to its self-paced design. Students can choose to complete the programme in between two to five years.
"Women these days are more assertive and ambitious. They are not as tied down by family commitments and recognise the importance of international exposure in order to progress in their careers. They consider an MBA a worthwhile investment," says Dr Chris Chan, assistant dean of HKU's MBA programme, noting women have recently comprised 45 per cent of its part-time MBA class.
Dr Lawrence Tsang, head of business and information technology studies at Baptist University's school of continuing education, says that as more than half of the undergraduate population is represented by women, it is logical more will be doing a second qualification.
The university, which runs an MBA in collaboration with the University of Strathclyde, saw enrolment by women jump 20 per cent over the past three years to reach a proportion of 60 per cent last year.
"There are, in fact, more women taking business and business-related programmes across the spectrum, from certificates and diplomas to undergraduate and postgraduate level," Tsang says.
MBAs were indeed once the preserve of men - successful professionals such as financiers, accountants and engineers wanting to advance their careers by gaining a broader view of business and upgrading their general management skills.
With a growing number of women signing on to these professions, they too are increasingly keen to do the same.
"These women have often proved themselves already but need the networking, leadership and creativity skills to get to the managing director level," Chan says.
Two types of women are dominating the MBA circuit: young, single managers such as Ema Yao, 28, an HKU student keen to accelerate her career track in retail management, and mothers such as Toni Zen, an engineer, who, backed by strong family support, wants to broaden her career scope and progress up the corporate ladder.
"I probably didn't benefit as much from the MBA's business networking opportunities because I had to go home and take care of my kids," says Zen, a 36- year old mother of two, who enrolled on Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's (HKUST) part-time MBA just two months after giving birth. "My family was very supportive of me. My husband and mother would look after my kids when I was studying, so in many ways their sacrifice was greater than mine." Zen is now manager of special projects at a property developer, where she is involved in other areas of business including finance and feasibility studies.
The motivations behind doing an MBA are largely the same for men and women - an improvement in career prospects, learning new skills and a bigger income - but admissions officers have observed distinct differences in the way men and women approach the programme.
"Female applicants tend to be more attuned to what they want even at the interview stage. They are more aggressive and focused. They know what they need and have a post-MBA career plan. Men, on the other hand, are less specific. They want the MBA as a qualification but don't know what they want to do with it," says Kenneth Mok, Chinese University's administrative director, marketing and student recruiting for MBA programmes.
Women also tend to gravitate towards softer type electives and have more reservations about pursuing technical subjects such as finance and accounting, according to Dr Daniel Yan, associate head of HKU Space's college of business and finance.
Ultimately, the greatest challenge for both sexes is that of time management, though women are more likely to be hindered by it because of their various roles.
"An MBA would, of course, be harder for women with families. That's why most women [on our programmes] typically do not have families yet, whereas men generally go for an MBA and focus on their career after they have married, settled down and had a family," says Sherring Ng, assistant director for the MBA programme at HKUST.
Elsewhere in the world, the trend has been unfolding at a similar pace. The proportion of women attending the QS World MBA Tour, the largest business education event in the world, has tracked yearly growth, according to the QS TopMBA.com Applicant Survey. The number of women GMAT test takers exceeded 100,000 for the first time last year. GMAT is the standardised entrance exam used by business and management schools worldwide.
"This proves two things: business school is more popular than ever before, in general, and women have become motivated and inspired by their female peers to achieve the same business success," says Ross Geraghty, co-author of the report.