Investing in your career is a vital part of growing and developing as a professional, for example by taking an MBA. However, the statistics suggest that many less women are doing that than men. Why is this?

A range of ideas have been put forward, but for me three things seem to come up again and again when I speak to the immensely talented women around me – money, timing and a lack of self-confidence.

I was in a fortunate position financially (thank you, improving property prices in the UK), but this was still easily the biggest mental hurdle to overcome, given all of the other things I could do – buy a bigger house, invest in my own start-up, go travelling – these were all ideas that came up at one point or another in my pre-MBA journey. For many people though they must overcome an even bigger hurdle, and seek out parental support, loans or employer assistance.

But why should this affect women any more than men?  it feels to me like there are a couple of reasons. First, it is acknowledged in discussions on the gender-pay gap that for a variety of reasons women fail to negotiate for their full worth. So, it’s easy to see how this could also spill over into not seeking employer assistance to pursue study, or by having a limiting effect on women’s savings.

Secondly, and more sadly, around the world there still exists pockets where parental investment in female development may take second place to male development. In this area I believe that more can be done by universities, charities and development agencies to understand the root causes of monetary concern and find workable solutions to address them.

A more challenging issue around women’s career development is around timing, and specifically, children. This was easily the second biggest concern for me. My inner-dialogue sounded a lot like this:

“So, I’m 32 now, I’ll be 33 when I start the MBA, 34 when I finish. I need a couple of years to re-establish myself, and in good faith I wouldn’t feel comfortable starting a role and then going on maternity within a year. Which will mean I’ll be 36, and what if the maternity provisions aren’t good, or I haven’t had a chance to save enough, and why do I have such a clear mental image of my mother making tick-tock noises at me?!”

The final area is perhaps the most interesting but also the hardest to discuss – that women lack the same confidence as men, and as a result don’t invest in their career development. I know that pain – at each stage in the pre-MBA process I was adamant that it would be an abject failure: the GMAT would be the lowest score ever recorded; I would be laughed out of the interview day; that I’d spill soup down myself at the welcome meal…you name it, I thought it.

In informal discussions with the women around me, I have found that I’m not the only one who thinks like this.

The suggested reasons for this lack of female self-belief are broad, but possibly fall into the nature versus nurture debate. There are arguments, for example, that suggest that human sexual dimorphism results, on average, in women having a lower appetite for risk-taking and a higher propensity to psychological stress, which feeds through to real-life outcomes.

On the nurture side, there is the argument that patriarchal systems of oppression repeatedly reinforce a message that it is unfeminine to overtly display self-assurance, or that women have taken a realist perspective of how little society values them.

Personally, I suspect it’s a bit of both, and more complex than anyone thinks. But what more can we do to ensure that confidence and femininity are not seen as mutually exclusive?

My personal belief is that through careful analysis to understand the root cause of the obstacles facing women, rather than the superficial manifestations of them, we can allow women to access the full range of career development opportunities available to them.