Graduate Management News
Data & Trends

Finding Future Women MBAs: B-Schools Still Face Challenges 

A Problem Unique to Business

Despite more than a decade of work to increase the number of women in MBA programs, women continue to make up less than one-third of the student body at most top business schools.

The dearth of female representation is a problem other professional programs do not currently face. Women are well represented in law school, where the percentage of female students has grown from less than 10% in the 1970s to roughly 49% in 2001, according to the American Bar Association. In American medical schools, women make up about half the enrolled student body.

Bringing more women into management education and business leadership roles remains of paramount importance to business schools and companies around the world.

“Every [school] wants to have more women, but it’s not an easy thing to attain,” said David Standen, associate director of admissions at Instituto de Empresa (IE) in Madrid, Spain.

The reasons why there remains a lack of women in management education are numerous and complex.

A Host of Hurdles

The lack of female role models in upper management may be partly to blame. Women make up roughly half the U.S. work force but represented fewer than 16% of U.S. corporate officers in 2003, according to figures from the nonprofit Catalyst organization. A study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that in 1999, women’s representation in the executive management of the 500 largest firms in the United States was only 5.1%, despite having doubled since 1996. In roughly 70 other countries studied by the ILO, women’s representation in upper management was even lower than in the United States.

Similarly, the predominantly male business school student body may not seem welcoming to women, who, more so than men, look for a diverse student body and faculty and “people like me” when they choose a business school, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council® (GMAC®) Global MBA® Graduate Survey.

Unsupportive corporate cultures can also deter women from striving for upper-management jobs and therefore from earning an MBA. A Catalyst study released in June 2004 found that female executives consider corporate culture far less hospitable to their advancement than do males. Recent articles in major publications have highlighted the problem of women reaching, but then dropping out of, upper management positions, often to focus more time on their personal lives or to escape adverse corporate environments.

Some barriers to women’s participation in business school have to do with common perceptions of business careers and those who pursue them. In contrast with careers in law, medicine, and education, business careers are often believed to lack social utility. There is also a prevalent belief that MBA careers do not allow for a healthy work-life balance, a misconception that could stem from the visibility of MBAs in high-intensity fields such as investment banking and consulting. Recent GMAC® research found that of six professions studied, business school students believed the fields of engineering and business to have the most substantial “glass ceiling” for women (source: Global MBA Graduate Survey 2004).

Further, business school students are often stereotyped as Type A personalities who can make for an overly competitive business school environment. The corporate scandals of the past few years certainly have not helped to dispel negative perceptions of corporations, their executives, and MBA graduates.

Then there are the social and biological barriers to women’s participation in business school. The typical age range of a business school student, 25 to 34, is also the age at which many women are bearing and caring for children, which can make it difficult for them to fit business school into their plans. Certainly, one cannot underestimate the impact of family considerations on the choices women must make about their careers: U.S. Census Bureau data show that a majority of women in the United States bear children at some point in their lives. Further, women with children under the age of six typically spend 56% more time on child care than do men with children the same age, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time-Use Survey, released in September 2004.

Money is always a factor in business school students’ decisions about where to go to school, but cost is a more important factor for women, according to GMAC® research (the Global MBA® Graduate Survey). Finances may play a role in keeping some women from pursuing graduate business degrees, particularly those women who plan to drop out of the workforce for a period of time to raise their children. Women are significantly more likely than men to carry educational debt prior to business school, according to a 2003 GMAC® survey of 10,000 prospective business school students ( Registrants Survey). Moreover, women’s salaries are lower than those of men doing comparable work in 99% of jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. These factors can make business school a less affordable option for women than for men.

Working toward a Better Balance

The good news is a number of business schools—including IE, Harvard Business School (HBS), Stanford Graduate School of Business, Fordham Business School, and the Stern School of Business at New York University—are gaining momentum in their efforts to attract more women. Their success could provide the business school community at large with the ideas and motivation it needs to eventually achieve greater gender equality.

“We want a situation, both in education and the work world, where your sex is not important and women are no longer viewed as a minority interest,” said Myra Hart, a professor of management practice at HBS and cohead of the school’s Entrepreneurial and Service Management group.

The 30% Barrier

Although you don’t necessarily need a 50-50 split between men and women for gender to no longer be an issue, as Hart says, you definitely need more than 30 percent women. Yet, even though women make up about 38% of GMAT® test takers, most business schools have struggled over the last 10 years to break the 30% barrier.

Despite numerous well-funded outreach initiatives and three full-time staff members dedicated to female and minority recruitment, the number of women at the Johnson School of Business at Cornell University hovers at just over 25%.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Angela Noble-Grange, director of the office for women and minorities in business at the Johnson School. “No matter how much we do—and we do a lot—we haven’t been able to bust through that 30% glass ceiling when it comes to final enrollment.”

Since the last time Graduate Management News wrote about this issue, in 2002 ("Where Are the Women?" September-October 2002), female enrollment at a number of schools has actually fallen. The Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado at Boulder, for instance, saw its full-time female enrollment plummet from 32% for the class of 2002 to 17% for the class of 2005—notwithstanding the millions of dollars Michael Leeds and his family gave the school in 2001 to bring in more women faculty and create new business courses focused on socially responsible business.

To be fair, the Leeds School’s small size (only about 60 students are admitted to the school’s full-time program each year) contributed to the sharp decline in the number of female students. “We had about 25% women until two weeks before orientation, but lost four to other programs,” explained Anne Sandoe-Thorp, director of MBA admissions and marketing at the Leeds School. “All of a sudden, our female enrollment was down by a huge percentage because of four bodies.”

Schools allied with the Forté Foundation—a consortium of business schools, corporations, and nonprofit organizations created in 2001 to pump more women through the MBA pipeline—are not immune to stagnating female enrollment rates.

“We collected information last year, and we saw a small rise in the average percentage of women—probably about half a percent,” said Elissa Ellis, executive director of the Forté Foundation and the former assistant dean of the MBA program at the Red McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.

The absence of female MBA students is even more pronounced in many European schools. The most recent entering MBA class at the European Institute of Business Administration (INSEAD) in Fontainebleau, France, is only 19% women.

“We are working to grow that to 25% over the next two years,” said Cliodhna Fullam, INSEAD’s MBA marketing manager.

London Business School (LBS) aims to increase the number of women in its full-time MBA program from 23% (for the class of 2005) to 30%—which would be on par with “female participation in our North American competitor schools,” said Polly Fogden, an MBA marketing and admissions officer at LBS.

A handful of business schools, however, have been able to grow their female enrollments well beyond the 30% mark. These schools include Fordham Business School (whose MBA class is 41% women), IE (39%), the Stern School (37%), Stanford (35%), and Harvard (35%).

Starting Early

One way HBS and Stanford have been able to increase their numbers of women students is by encouraging students to apply at a younger age.

“The conventional thinking among prospective MBA students seems to be that you need to wait to apply,” said Alison McCarty, assistant director of MBA admissions at Harvard. “But we don’t believe there is a right time to apply; it is up to each individual student to decide.”

By considering applicants with fewer years of work experience, HBS and Stanford have been able to attract young women who don’t want to be in or just getting out of graduate school at age 29 or 30—right about the time they wish to start a family. Sarah Riggs, wanting to get a head start on her business career, applied to and was admitted to HBS at the age of 21, becoming one of the youngest HBS graduates in recent years.

“One of the reasons I wanted to go at such an early age was because I thought that the sooner I finished my MBA, the more likely it would be that I could eventually balance a career and a family life,” said Riggs, now 24 and associate director of business development at Solutions Inc. in New York City.

Certainly, some fear that requiring less work experience of female business school students could put women at a disadvantage in the classroom.

“You don’t want the women to come in with one year of experience while everyone else has five years,” Forté’s Ellis said. “They won’t have as much to contribute in the classroom, and then there might be a lack of respect for their backgrounds. That won’t do them any favors.”

There is some evidence that the scenario Ellis describes may already be affecting women’s satisfaction with business school. GMAC® surveys have consistently found the satisfaction rates of female MBA students to be lower than those of their male counterparts. One suspected reason is that women tend to come to business school younger and with less work experience than their male counterparts and therefore may feel less prepared to succeed in the business school environment.

Riggs doesn’t believe women should get “a pass on the experience requirement just because they want to have kids.” She says all students—including men—should have the option of applying to business school when they feel ready and not when they think they’ve worked the minimum number of years it takes to get accepted.

As for her own performance, Riggs is satisfied with what she was able to contribute in the MBA classroom despite her lack of post-undergraduate work experience.

“I faced a steeper learning curve,” Riggs said, “but I felt I competed very well. I found that if you could make good comments, then the other people in the classroom respected you.”

Fitting into Busy Lives

Fordham Business School in New York City and IE in Madrid have found another way to attract more women: create flexible MBA programs that fit into the busy, complex lives of students.

IE, for example, has packed a full MBA curriculum into one year, thus limiting the amount of time a student must invest in her education.

“I personally do not think that within five years we will see women in two-year programs,” said IE’s Standen. “They simply don’t have that kind of time.”

Fordham, on the other hand, has created a program that enables students to move between full- and part-time status at any time and without even notifying an administrator. They can also take a trimester off at any time without jeopardizing their current status.

“Our only requirement is that they complete the program in six years,” said Frank Fletcher, director of MBA admissions at Fordham. “If students are looking to start a family while in the MBA program, they can take time off if needed. That is very attractive to our female population.”

Flexible and short programs are proving to be attractive not only to women but to prospective business school students generally. Whereas roughly two-thirds of two-year, full-time MBA programs surveyed in the 2004 GMAC Application Trends Survey reported a decline in application volume, executive MBA programs, part-time programs, and one-year MBA programs were more successful in maintaining or increasing their application volume from 2003 to 2004. One explanation is that today’s applicants to business school want to work and attend school at the same time and balance family duties with school.

The Fordham program’s flexibility is what attracted Bootri Tantisira—not because she was thinking about kids but because she wanted to finish her MBA in two years, stay in New York City where her husband works, and have time to gain work experience while completing her studies.

“Because I am a career changer, I wanted to be able to do internships throughout my time at school, and Fordham is allowing me to do this,” said Tantisira, who will graduate from Fordham in 2005.

Tantisira’s experience coincides with findings from Global MBA Graduate Survey 2004. The study, in which GMAC® surveyed graduating MBA students who earned their degrees between 2000 and 2003, found that compared with men, women tend to place greater importance on a school’s location and class schedules when selecting an MBA program.  

Opening Doors to Career Choices

The Johnson School’s Noble-Grange suggests that women’s desire to contribute to society may be needlessly preventing them from going to business school.

“When I look at the statistics, I see that women are more highly represented in health and human services and education—all helping fields,” Noble-Grange said. “This says to me that women want to do things that will benefit their communities and society. The problem is, they do not perceive business to be a vehicle for doing that. I think that is a disconnect with reality and that we have to do a better job of showing women that a business education can teach them about how to be more effective in the world.”

More effective communication about the socially redeeming aspects of business may be useful for recruiting both women and men who are just reaching typical business school age. According to authors of generational studies, the rising generation (known as Generation Y, or the Millennials) is both socially conscious and disparaging of big business. Getting Millennials interested in business and business school may require updating the traditional images of business careers and MBA students to include socially responsible companies and jobs, as well as students who go for an MBA not only to do well, but also to do good.

Riggs says it took learning about the many ways she could positively affect society as a business professional to convince her to trade in her law school ambitions for business school.

“I realized you didn’t have to be in politics or law to make a difference in the world,” Riggs said. “As an entrepreneur, you can have an enormous impact on your community by providing hundreds and even thousands of people with a livelihood and a means to support their families. Or, you can start a business that finds a cure for a disease.”

This is one message the Johnson School attempts to get across to its prospective women applicants during its Woman2Woman recruiting events each fall. Sponsored by JP Morgan Chase, these events are typically held in New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., and they enable the school to bring together students, alumnae, and women interested in learning more about business school to discuss the value of an MBA education and career.

“These events have been quite successful for us,” Noble-Grange said. “The people who come are highly likely to apply, highly likely to be admitted, and highly likely to attend.”

The Forté Foundation holds similar events throughout the United States each fall to connect young women with a diverse array of female business and community leaders.

“Our goal is to put more role models in front of women so they can dialogue about the experiences they have had,” Ellis said. “Some women identify working on Wall Street as the only career option for an MBA, but there are so many nooks and crannies in the working world where a business education is useful and can enable you to contribute to society in a meaningful way.”

Demonstrating that a business career can provide the flexibility necessary to raise a family, volunteer in the community, or pursue other personal interests is also crucial in attracting prospective women students, says Isser Gallogly, MBA admissions director at the Stern School. “You have to show women that you can be in business and have a balanced life.”

Women also need to know that, along with opening up a world of opportunities, an MBA can provide the boost they may need to propel their careers to the next level, adds HBS student Anne Ristau.

“The MBA is a very powerful tool for women, as it provides access to powerful networks and instant credibility—two things women have historically struggled with in corporate America,” said Ristau, who will graduate in 2005 and hopes to one day rise to the level of chief financial officer.

But Ristau says she also believes an MBA can provide tremendous value to women who want to balance career with other responsibilities.

“Leadership skills, teamwork abilities, self-awareness, and confidence are benefits of an MBA that are as valuable to a mom as they are to a CEO,” she said.

Delivering these messages to women at the high school and college levels—when most students are first forging their future career plans—is of particular interest to the Forté Foundation.

“We need to reach out to and get mentors in front of these women at those critical decision-making points—before they have already decided to pursue law, medicine, or another path,” Ellis said.

A Multifaceted Approach

Of course, the schools that have succeeded at building MBA classes with 35% and even 40% women have done much more than just marketing and outreach. They’ve created scholarships for women, supported the women’s groups on their campuses, increased their efforts to hire more female professors, and encouraged faculty to engage in research that could help to bring about greater gender equality in business.

“You can’t say you are committed to enrolling more women and not be part of the organizations dedicated to this cause or not have scholarships or strong student and alumni groups for women,” said the Stern School’s Gallogly.

A member of the Forté Foundation and the MBA Diversity Alliance*, another multiple-school effort aimed at increasing the participation of women in MBA programs, Stern hosts numerous networking and career events for its female students and offers an MBA class on women in leadership.

The vitality of the Stern Women in Business (SWIB) club has also helped to sell prospective women students on the school, Gallogly says. The club hosts a popular annual conference and numerous networking events for women students and alumnae. The club’s current copresidents, Sharon Katz and Jennifer Preller, have added to SWIB’s upcoming events roster a handful of skill-building workshops aimed at helping women improve their negotiating skills and their success in the workplace.

“We are continually looking for ways to support and promote women as they move into business leadership roles,” Preller said.

HBS has launched numerous research initiatives in its efforts to support its female students and alumnae, including a program created in 1998 to produce business case studies that feature women business leaders.

The Committee of 200 and former Kmart executive Marjorie Alfus provided the initial U.S. $1 million to fund the initiative, which resulted in the creation of 75 case studies.

“These are not gender studies,” explained Hart, who served as the faculty director of the program. “They are cases that feature women decision makers in business”—something that had been sorely lacking in the MBA classroom.

Hart also helped create the “Charting Your Course” program at Harvard. Launched in 2000, the program is designed to help HBS women students and alumnae map out strategies for balancing and achieving their professional and personal goals.

“We want to provide the ongoing tools and strategic planning women need to have productive careers and meaningful time with their families,” Hart said.

Initiatives such as Charting Your Course and others aimed at meeting the specific career needs of women could help schools improve the value of the MBA degree for their alumnae.

Like Harvard, IE has focused on numerous gender-related research projects, and the school is home to the new Center for Diversity in Global Management, which conducts research aimed at fostering ethnic and gender diversity in business.

IE is also demonstrating its commitment to women with the launch of its new Diversity in Management Scholarship program, through which the school will award 20 women from the 10 new European Union countries the money to cover 50% of IE’s program fees.

“Typically, the very few people from these new EU countries who have decided to do an MBA have been men,” said Standen. “We saw this as an opportunity to try to change that trend. Our hope is that in December 2005, we will launch 20 well-trained young women back into these EU countries and that over the next five years they will be able to make a dramatic difference in their communities.”

As Standen has seen at IE, when a school invests in scholarships and the many other initiatives necessary to meet the needs of female students, women are attracted to the school. Over time, that helps to draw even larger numbers of women.

“We benefit from what has become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Standen said. “We have more women, therefore we get more women. Now we are seen as the place where women come.”

—Carlotta Mast


*MBA Diversity Alliance is not associated with the Diversity Pipeline Alliance SM, a nonprofit organization dedicated to attracting U.S. minority students to business education and business careers. MBA Diversity Alliance members are NYU's Stern School, the Yale School of Management, Cornell's Johnson School, Duke's Fuqua School, and the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.
GMAC® and Global MBA® Graduate Survey are registered trademarks of the Graduate Management Admission Council. All rights reserved. Diversity Pipeline AllianceSM is a service mark of the Diversity Pipeline AllianceSM.
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