Graduate Management News

March 2015

The Newsletter of the Graduate Management Admission Council

Going Grassroots: Student-Driven Initiatives Spark Radical Change in Female MBA Recruitment

Gender equity efforts take center stage in March as we celebrated International Women’s Day and continue to honor Women’s History Month. These observances prompt vastly different discussions in various circles, but a central issue remains top of mind among graduate management admissions professionals. How will we recruit more women to MBA programs?

Forte Foundation

For more than a decade, this question has been a core focus of Forté Foundation, in partnership with many of you. Forté is a non-profit consortium of top business schools in the US and abroad, GMAC, and leading multinational corporations. We strive to launch women into business careers through access to education, opportunities, and a community of successful women. Since we launched in 2002, female MBA enrollment has risen from 28% to 34%. We’re proud of our progress but we must do more—these enrollment figures should be equitable with men’s, year after year. 

Top-Down Action Remains Vital 

It’s tempting just to look to the tops of our organizations for the answer to our pressing female MBA recruitment question. And, if you do, you’ll find some bold plans and proclamations. 

Last month, Poets & Quants covered the historic in-person meeting between 10 female deans from the top 60 business schools and senior White House economic policy advisor Betsey Stevenson. They discussed ways to attract more women to business schools as students, staff members, and deans. As host UCLA Anderson School of Management Dean Judy Olian said, “We could do it better collectively, rather than alone.” As a result, they plan to establish a consortium to address business school gender inequities, with ideas ranging from hosting summer camps to educate high school teachers about careers in business, to recruiting female MBA applicants from women’s sports organizations. 

One more very recent top-down example is the University of Maryland setting a target to reach 50% female MBA graduates by 2020, announced under the leadership of Robert H. Smith School of Business Dean Alex Triantis. “Many business schools talk about their commitment to women,” he said in a statement. “Now it is time to deliver results.” According to the Washington Post coverage, about 32% of the school’s MBA students today are women, and Forté is a proud partner of this aggressive “50/50 by 2020” initiative. (See related article in this issue.)

Student-Driven Efforts Ignite Some Sweeping Successes 

While this action inspires me, it’s only part of a modern day answer to the issue. Student involvement makes the change more pervasive. 

MBA student-led gender parity work at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business garnered exceptional results. In February, Poets & Quants also reported on the work of a few MBA student leaders—both women and men—to raise gender inequities they noticed in MBA enrollment, the classroom environment, and campus culture. Their efforts included meeting with staff members and the dean to suggest that women faculty and alums should call female applicants; asking a professor to more equally represent women and men in classroom materials; holding female recruitment events in key US cities; and recruiting “manbassadors” to support the Women in Leadership club. Their impact, when combined with school-led efforts, was remarkable: female enrollment in Haas’ latest MBA class was 43%, jumping from 29% the year prior. Now, students are even engaging in an independent study course to understand what worked so they can replicate it for future classes. 

Forté has been a partner in another new, student-driven effort: the #savvywomen campaign. It encourages MBA students and MBA alumnae to call out specific women who should consider an MBA via social media, pointing them to helpful resources. Launched by University of Notre Dame MBA student Leila Whitley, the campaign has already reached more than 330,000 people—and we hope it won’t stop there. 

Our organization believes so strongly in encouraging student-driven efforts that Forté annually honors female MBA students who have exhibited exceptional leadership in advancing women in business through our Edie Hunt Inspiration Award. Zoe Hillenmeyer was a 2013 honoree while she was an MBA student at Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School. She was surprised that roughly 23% of her class was women when she started, and she and her peers worked to change that by improving the Olin Women in Business organization; initiating diversity workshops and a speaker series; providing resume and career coaching for Olin women; collaborating with the dean; and more. By the time she was honored with the award the following year, Olin had increased the proportion of women entering the program to 33%. 

Why We Need Leadership at Both Levels 

You’ve likely heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” We’re just beginning to recognize that it will also take a village to change a business school. I encourage you to both support and spotlight grassroots, student-driven action to address the female MBA recruitment challenge whenever you have the opportunity. Today, a critical mass of encouraging student tweets just might attract as much attention as a revolutionary recruitment target, if not more. That’s not only okay, it’s game-changing when you think about the gap we’re trying to close. 

Closing the MBA gender education gap will also have a ripple effect—it will help address the lack of women in leadership. Forté research has shown that women may only make up 10% of Fortune 100 CEOs today, but half of them have their MBAs. This outpaces the 43% of Fortune 100 male CEOs with MBAs. The degree is a significant stepping stone to senior leadership. Together, as we continue growing female MBA enrollment, we’ll also expand the role of female MBAs in women’s advancement more broadly


About the Author

Elissa SangsterElissa Sangster serves as executive director for the Forté Foundation, an organization dedicated to inspiring women business leaders. Previously, Elissa was the assistant dean and director of the MBA Program at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.