The LGBT Question: Should Schools Ask?
Should schools ask MBA applicants whether they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender? Or is this too intrusive?
That’s what business schools are debating as part of their efforts to attract more LGBT students. Already, an optional LGBT question has been added to the MBA applications at a few schools, including the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
Wharton, for example, asks: “Do you identify as a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered person?” while Fuqua’s application says: “If you would like to self-identify as a member of the LGBT community, please indicate your affiliation here.”
If applicants choose to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity, the schools can then put them in touch with LGBT students, alumni and faculty. They also can track more accurately the effectiveness of their outreach activities in boosting LGBT enrollment.
The LGBT "application question is more for recruiting purposes and connecting people with the right folks,” says Soojin Kwon, admissions director at the Ross School. “It has no bearing on the admission decision.” On the LGBT section of its website, the Ross School goes further than most MBA programs by stating that, “We encourage prospective students to be out in their applications and with the Office of Admissions.”
With that message, “we want to convey that we’re a very open community, and that there’s no need to fear that coming out will have a negative impact on the application,” Kwon says. Most schools, however, remain reluctant to ask so directly about sexual orientation and gender identity. They say they don’t want to make applicants feel uncomfortable or to suggest that being gay or transgender will sway the admission decision, either positively or negatively.
"An applicant also might wonder about how the information will be used," says Alison Merzel, director of MBA admissions at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, which does not have an LGBT question on its application. While admissions directors insist that sexual orientation and gender identity won’t help students get into competitive MBA programs, some applicants believe that being LGBT could give them an edge.
Of course, students can come out on their applications without answering a specific LGBT question. Often, they list their previous leadership roles in LGBT organizations or write an essay about a personal experience related to their sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, Andrew Holmberg, co-president of the LGBT Student Association at Harvard Business School, discussed how being called a pejorative word in the workplace affected his interactions with his team and the way he viewed his role in the organization. “I tried to show how this experience shaped who I am as a leader,” he says.
International students tend to be the most sensitive to coming out on their MBA applications, especially if they grew up in countries with a hostile or even dangerous environment for gay and transgender individuals." I didn’t want to be too out there--or be totally closeted,” says an MBA student from the Middle East at London Business School. In the end, he says he decided only to drop “hints” by writing an essay about his passion for opera and noting that he had done LGBT recruiting while working at an investment bank. “The acceptance process is such a black box," he says. "We don’t really know how much diversity schools really want.”