GMAC Viewpoints: Women Value the MBA Credential but Want New Incentives to Make It Worth the Pursuit

New GMAC white paper examines women’s motivations and biggest challenges in the business school application journey.

Mar 21, 2017


Women across the globe are increasingly attracted to graduate business education. Every year, the number of GMAT exams taken by women increases, narrowing the test-taking gap with men. In recent decades, the ranks of women enrolling in graduate business programs have swelled, contributing to the growth of the MBA and graduate business degrees in general, making these degrees the most sought-after graduate credential in higher education.

Women in Higher EdGlobally, women today represent a greater share of the applicant pool than men in many of the business master’s programs, such as accounting, marketing, and management. Despite their phenomenal success in attaining business master’s degrees, however, women have not yet caught up with men in the share of MBA degrees earned and are still underrepresented in MBA classrooms.

A new GMAC white paper, What Women Want: A Blueprint for Change in Business Education, examines the drivers behind this lack of gender parity in MBA programs. The paper explores the differences between women and men in their top motivations for pursuing a graduate business education, highlights the key factors that most motivate women to select a specific program, and explains the biggest challenges women face in the application journey. The white paper proposes strategies for business schools to enhance the value proposition of their programs for women and ensuring that their marketing and program management efforts speak to women’s unique motivations and challenges.

Co-authored by two GMAC analysts and researchers, Shelby Colby and Paula Bruggeman, the white paper draws its key insights from the results of a global graduate management education candidate segmentation study that GMAC conducted in 2016 in partnership with Ipsos, a global market research firm, as well as from GMAT testing data and other GMAC survey research findings.

Program Preferences and Choices

Graduation statistics tracked by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) show that, on average, women globally earned 38 percent of MBA degrees issued to graduating students in 2015–2016 compared with 64 percent for men. Women, however, have essentially achieved parity with men in non-MBA specialist business master’s programs, receiving an average of 51 percent of such degrees in 2015–2016.1 These percentage breakdowns have remained constant for the past five years, and they align with application trends research that GMAC conducts every year. GMAC data also show the proportion of women in full-time MBA programs hovering at an average of 38 percent since 2012, which suggests perhaps that the number of women applying to these MBA programs has reached a plateau.2

The white paper cites possible reasons for the trends, including the continued diversification of graduate business programs, including both new master’s programs (e.g. Data Analytics) and new MBA formats such as the online MBA, which have given women more study options. In addition, recent registrants’ data shows that even though most women, globally, apply to MBA programs, a greater proportion of women consider and prefer non-MBA master’s programs compared with men.3

Gender Differences in Motivations and Approaches to the Application Process

Key insights from the authors’ analysis of the segmentation study data include the following:

  • An MBA degree is still relevant and valued by women as a passport to wider career advancement and leadership opportunities in business. In fact, women are more likely than men to hold the MBA degree in high regard even though they have not yet achieved parity with men in MBA classrooms.
  • Curiosity is the one defining characteristic that sets women apart from male applicants. Overall, women are more likely than men to say they like to continuously discover new things and that it’s never too late to return to school.
  • In the United States, women are less likely than men to say that the GMAT exam is too difficult. In China and India, women are more likely than men to think that submitting an exam score will strengthen their application.
  • Overall, women are more pragmatic and outcomes-focused in their approach to pursuing graduate business education. They are more likely to apply to a specific school because it offers flexible program formats and its graduates get better job opportunities. In Western countries, women are more likely than men to be motivated by the desire to advance more quickly and earn more money.
  • Early planning and convenience play a key role in women’s application journey. Women are more likely than men to begin considering a graduate business degree while still an undergraduate and are more likely to be prompted to apply because the timing was convenient.
  • Women in Western countries (Europe and the United States) differ in their motivations and approaches to the application process from women in emerging economies of China and India, and the motivational profiles of Western women differ noticeably from their male counterparts. In China and India, women’s motivations and application behaviors closely resemble those of men in these countries.
  • Challenges related to funding are significant barriers for women. Women globally cited financial reasons as the number one reason why they have not yet accepted their offer of admissions. In the United States, 30 percent of female applicants cite obtaining funds as their biggest challenge versus 9 percent of men.
  • Segments of women with funding challenges are less likely to pursue MBA degrees. Woman characterized as Balanced Careerists and Socioeconomic Climbers, who report the greatest funding challenges, are the least likely to pursue an MBA degree and the most likely to seek a non-MBA master’s degree instead. These candidates are also less likely to say they are willing to pay whatever it takes to attend a top-ranked business school.

Strategies for Enhancing the Value Proposition for Women

For schools intent upon maintaining a strong pipeline of female candidates, especially for the full-time MBA programs, the white paper offers suggestions for addressing the unique motivations of women:

  • Recognize and promote the opportunities for learning and discovery that drive many women to consider a business degree to broaden their horizons;
  • Address women’s propensity for early planning and their need for convenience through admissions changes, such as more deferred enrollment policies;
  • Identify the motivation-based segments of women who are applying to and attending their programs and use those insights to develop targeted messaging for the segments they would like to attract in greater numbers;
  • To meet women’s pragmatic needs, communicate how the MBA is a viable investment; and
  • Evaluate strategies for how financial aid and scholarships are allocated to women and follow through with generous tuition aid packages for those segments of candidates where the need is greatest.

To see additional findings about women’s motivations, attitudes, and approaches to graduate business school, and to learn more about how the segmentation model further differentiates the behaviors and motivations of female candidates, download the full white paper at The original Segmentation Study white paper can be found at

About the Authors

Shelby ColbyShelby Colby is Strategy Analyst, Executive Office, at the Graduate Management Admission Council.




Paula BrugemannPaula Bruggeman is Research Publications Manager and Editor at the Graduate Management Admission Council.

1] AACSB. Business Degrees Conferred, by Gender, Level, and Region, retrieved January 19, 2017 at
2] GMAC Application Trends Survey, data collected 2012 to 2016.

3] GMAC Prospective Students Survey, 2016. Data collected January to December 2015.