South African MBAs And The Struggle With Diversity by J. Todd Rhoad

When it comes to diversity, South Africa, the rainbow nation, dons some unique décor for its MBA programs and their graduates. Around the world, most executives now demand that business graduates possess some exposure to global markets and culture. South Africa’s business landscape is already covered by many multinational corporations, and with 11 national languages, offers considerably more cultural influence for students and graduates in this post-apartheid era.  But, it’s not just the corporate environment that makes the study of business in South Africa so exciting. It’s also the mix of MBA program philosophies and even the students themselves.

According the Colette Symanowitz, managing director of MBAconnect.netand MBA graduate from the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) at the University of Pretoria, MBA students in South Africa are considerably more experienced than in other parts of the world. “The average MBA student is in their mid-30s in South Africa, as compared to students who are in their 20s in the US and Europe,” she says. This is a result of the South African MBA program entrance requirements, which are a little more stringent by not only requiring a certain number of years of work experience, but also requiring a certain level of experience, specifically several years of management experience. Management experience is usually necessary for the executive MBA in the US and Europe, but it is a requirement for most all types of MBAs in South Africa. GIBS and Henley are two such programs, requiring two and three years of work at the management level, respectively.

In most other parts of the world, the MBA is sought as a means for elevating one’s earning potential, outlook on life, confidence, and status. According to the 2012 MBA Life Impact Survey, conducted by Finweek magazine, together with and, career advancement and financial motives were not the main reasons South African students decided to earn an MBA. In this survey, job promotion was only the fourth most popular reason and financial motives was sixth on the list. By an overwhelming majority, the main reason students pursued the MBA was “attainment of business knowledge,” followed by “confidence in a business setting.” These results are likely due to the maturity of the respondents and their familiarity with the corporate environment, including its challenges.

South Africa still struggles with a balance of diversity in the upper echelons of organizations. The South African government has recognized this imbalance, and has created affirmative action (AA) requirements, strongly urging companies to push for diversity among the management ranks. These labor laws even trump the MBA qualification. South African companies have to maintain their quotas, giving AA applicants the advantage when all other qualifications are equal. Zaheera Soomar, a part-time MBA student at the University of Cape Town, feels, “The problem with this is that it turns into a numbers game. This has many repercussions such as skills mismatch, a lower appreciation of employees, and hired minorities feeling like token staff. Corporations need to forget about the numbers and work on the value proposition of diversity.”

But this isn’t the only bias t MBA students and graduates face.  In the survey, only 25% of respondents were female. According to Symanowitz, “This reflects the historical bias inherent in the MBA degree. While the gender ratios may be improving, and there is a strong drive to improve this at many of the top schools, the reality is that most MBA students are male.”  Zoomar agrees that universities are improving and that this will certainly “ensure a more enriching learning environment as the majority of the learning done at an MBA level is through discussion with classmates.”

Despite these challenges, South African MBA graduates do see some positive impacts to their career. In the Life Impact survey, 77% of respondents indicated they had received a promotion or greater responsibility after the MBA. On average, the MBA adds just over 5% per annum to the expected salary growth post-MBA. However, the expected increase in salary as a result of the MBA is lower for females than males. The average salary growth rate of Black MBA graduates is higher than for the other population groups, though the overall impact of the MBA was slightly lower. Overall, Indian MBA graduates tend to benefit the most in terms of salary growth related to the MBA degree.

The future for SA MBAs has both bright and dark spots. The growth for opportunities is on the rise. In January 2011, the Economist listed seven African countries (Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zambia, and Nigeria) in the top 10 fastest growing economies in the next five years. This will undoubtedly increase the demand for African managerial talent, assuming they can sustain the growth.  But the pool of management talent may be threatened, as the South African Commission on Higher Education is currently proposing to downgrade the MBA from the level of a master’s degree to that of a postgraduate diploma. The biggest impact of this change would be in the reduction of government subsidies the universities would receive, making it more difficult to support the growing needs of these booming economies as well as compete with international universities for students.

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