Once the key to corporate advancement, the traditional MBA program has long struggled to reach gender equality. While the full-time enrollment rate has steadily increased from the 28% women enrolled in 2001 to 39% in 2019, the latest numbers from 2020 show stalling progress, according to gender equality lobby Forte Foundation.

But rather than raising red flags, the stall may also point to a changing educational and corporate environment for ambitious women. In fact, many women in executive positions today with MBAs tell younger women to avoid the traditional MBA path, unless they’re looking to advance in an extremely traditional Fortune 500 company or looking to change careers.

“If I could do it all over again, I would not have done it,” said Alexandria Ohlinger, Founder and CEO of NEVA Marketing, who received her MBA while working full-time at Mattel. “I would have rather taken the $125,000 tuition bill, and used it to start a business because even if it failed, I would have probably still learned more than I did in business school.”

She pursued the degree largely because she was told she would never get promoted to an executive position at Mattel or any large company without it, which turned out to be untrue. “Business school does give you a great foundation for learning about business across all functions,” she said. “But you can easily get this experience by starting your own business and then learn from real-world experience.”

How Tech Has Changed the Game

While the more traditional industries and companies (think Clorox or P&G) are more likely to require (or claim to require) a more traditional degree for executive roles, even that has been changing rapidly with the rise of the tech industry and its influence.

“People see the salary ranges coming out of even the best MBA programs, and compare it to the compensation packages of beginning and mid-level positions at tech companies,” said Dr. Julie Gurner, doctor of psychology and executive performance coach who has worked with leaders at both large tech and traditional companies. “Talented individuals are finding their greatest possibilities outside of the industries that require MBAs.” Traditional industries also often have slower career trajectories, less opportunity for big impact, and are increasingly viewed as “unsexy” by their peers, said Gurner.

For Tatiana Farrow, a project manager at Promomix Marketing, frustration came from getting her business degree in 2010, the same year Instagram launched. “Within 12 months, everything I learned about marketing, bringing a business to market, and scaling demand became obsolete,” she said.The rapid rise of innovation and strategy pivots in the business world have outpaced how fast the curriculum has changed for MBA programs, making online and one-off classes a more popular alternative. Farrow herself has supplemented her education with online courses, which she has preferred to her academic courses since they were taught by business people who have done the work themselves.

MBA Benefits Beyond the Textbook

In fact, it’s not the curriculum at all that women leaders point to as the most valuable aspect of a business degree. Instead, it’s the professional connections, leadership role models, and the broader network that make all the difference.

“You can learn to do discounted cash flow online,” said Paige Arnof-Fenn, Founder & CEO of Mavens & Moguls, who got her MBA from Harvard 30 years ago. “But by far the most valuable thing about it were the friends I made and the network I built. I continue to get referrals and offers to speak at events through my HBS contacts today.”

For better or worse, the strength of the network means that the name-brand degrees still tend to be more valuable, especially as online MBAs and smaller programs proliferate.

“Folks who have MBAs from elite colleges have their experience valued, but usually those people are more successful due to the networks they built up during their MBA experience, not because someone saw their MBA on their resume and bumped them to the top of the list,” said career coach Joyce West. Those with degrees from second-tier schools often end up competing for jobs with people who don’t have advanced degrees, and in West’s experience, they don’t seem to be any better at their jobs.

Carving a New Path

Even proponents recognize the time, effort, and expense of getting a traditional MBA may not be accessible to all, especially when so many educational alternatives exist today. Those looking to make a major career change, advance at a traditional company, or learn a highly specific skill like finance or accounting may benefit from the program, but it’s not the key to executive career success like it used to be.

Instead, women are using their networks and new educational opportunities to carve out the executive career path on their own terms, and changing the business landscape in the process.