B-School Gender Mix Changing, Slowly

Posted by: Alison Damast on May 20, 2011

After writing a story recently about the growing number of Chinese women interested in getting their MBAs, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what is happening with female enrollment in U.S. MBA programs. The last time we wrote about the topic was back in 2009, when we highlighted some of the innovative programs business schools were running to attract more women to campus.

In the U.S., the number of women taking the GMAT has risen incrementally for the last decade, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council. There were 50,053 U.S. women who took the GMAT in 2010, a 10 percent increase from a decade ago, GMAC said.

U.S. business schools have been benefiting from the uptick in interest among female applicants, said Elissa Ellis-Sangster, director of the Forte Foundation, a consortium of 36 business schools working to increase the number of women pursuing MBAs.

Female enrollment at Forte-member schools was 31.2 percent in 2010, up from 28.5 percent five years ago, according to Forte. About a dozen Forte schools saw female enrollment top 35 percent both in 2008 and 2009, a number that has since dropped to eight in 2010, a decline Ellis-Sangster said she attributed to the shaky economy and women staying closer to home for business school or putting off the decision to get their MBA.

"We are still only at 31 percent, which is nothing to jump on the bandwagon and scream success about," she said. "I think we still have a long way to go."

Some schools have had success at attracting women by ramping up admissions programming geared at women and organizing women's conferences and events, she said. About 54 percent of full-time MBA programs surveyed in 2010 reported special recruitment efforts to attract more women, GMAC said. At Forte-member institutions, the number of schools hosting women's outreach events has increased from about half in 2005 to 100 percent in 2010.

A campaign aimed at attracting more women has paid off for the Wharton School (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile), which had 40 percent female enrollment in its first-year MBA class for the last two years, the highest number in the school's history, said Ankur Kumar, deputy director of Wharton's MBA admissions office. In 2009, the admissions office began to offer several events on campus that allow applicants to interact with women in the program, participate in discussions on women leadership and learn more about the application process. The admissions team also hosts women-only information sessions and connects applicants with women students, all efforts that have paid off for the school, Kumar said.

"When you talk about other graduate programs like medical school or law school, you find much more of a fifty-fifty split in enrollment, so business school really feels like the next frontier in that regard," Kumar said.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile) professor who wrote the landmark 1977 book "Men and Women of the Corporation," said there has been much progress made in the number of women attending business school since she started teaching at Harvard in the 1980s. Women make up 36 percent of this year's entering Harvard MBA class, up from 25 percent in 1985 and 11 percent in 1975, according to the school.

"Clearly business schools have become a more welcoming environment for women than they might have been at a time when they tended to attract many people out of the military or with engineering backgrounds," Kanter said. "Now, many business schools are looking for people with leadership potential and that means they are looking more broadly beyond what had been the conventional sources."

Reader Comments


May 22, 2011 10:33 PM

When are there going to be programs and foundations to increase the number of stay-at-home dads?


May 23, 2011 12:47 PM

It appears that your comment was made more in jest than it was serious, but something needs to be said in relation to your comment.
The days of stay at home anyone outside of the ultra wealthy are coming to an end. The standard of living in america is currently stagnant and the possibility of it declining is very much within the realm of possibility. The cost of our expenses are increasing, and many employers are giving small, if not non existant raises. If one's expenses are increasing by 3 to 4 percent per year, and your salary is not increasing by the same percentage, one loses.
Granted our economy is currently in a weakened state compared to previous decades, but it doesn't change the fact that our income does not have the power that it used to.
To relate this back to the topic of the article, many of us, attempt to earn advanced degrees to increase our hireability and earning potential. This quite possibly could [and in my opinion does] negatively influence the rate of decrease in all those with 'only a 4 year degree.' We should expect to see more households with multiple members holding advanced degrees as time moves on. It should not suprise anyone if post graduate enrollment begins to approach the gender distribution of undergraduate studies where women outnumber males in terms of enrollment.
To sum it up, the coming years are likely to bring change with them in the status quo, and the economic slump will likely be a catalyst to that change.


May 23, 2011 1:14 PM

To the writer - Is this article about pay equity, discrimination or urging that more women should enter higher pay fields?

Is the implication that medicine, law and business the only competitive fields of interest to women? Maybe the article's limited focus was deliberate and it was intended to be about higher paying career positions. If so, the article should state it. But, there are other fields, including firefighting, that pay well, and even better than obtaining an MBA.

The article should have included a list of other professional or PhD academic programs' female-male ratio so the reader has a wider perspective. But, be aware, for example, that according to the New York Times, "...men earn only one in five of all master’s degrees awarded in psychology, down from half in the 1970s.". And, men who are professional counselors represent only "...10 percent of the American Counseling Association’s membership today (versus)... 30 percent in 1982...". The article admits that the ratio change is due, in part, to managed care reducing the level of reimbursements. Link at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/22/health/22therapists.html?_r=2

In the Physician Assistant field, according to Univ of Texas, the proportions are "...56% being male and 44% female, but female numbers are increasing rapidly.". Link at: http://www.utdallas.edu/biology/undergraduates/careers/pa.html

In the firefighter field, the Houston Chronicle reports that the national male female ratio is 3.7%, while in HFD "...women make up 2.7 percent of the city's 3,800 firefighters, 1 percentage point below the national average.". Link at: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/headline/metro/5869178.html

A follow-up article is warranted.

BW's Louis Lavelle

May 23, 2011 2:36 PM

Jim, Alison's unavailable, but I edited this blog post so allow me to answer for her. The post is about none of the things you mentioned; it's about the increasing number of women applying to b-school, and what b-schools are doing to encourage that trend. The story also has nothing to do with higher paying career positions--and if it did, we wouldn't have included firefighting (nationally, salaries range from $24,497-$71,633, according to PayScale, not even close to $100K +/- grads of top MBA programs can expect...and most MBAs don't need to put their lives at risk every day). The comparison with law and medicine is, I think, the most valid one you can make. Law, medicine and business are the three well-established professions; all require a significant educational investment and promise an equally significant financial return. Yes, you can find fields outside of those three, like psychology, where women outnumber men, but I'm not sure what, if anything, that proves. Ultimately the only comparison that really matters is what the gender mix at school X is now versus 5-10 years ago. And on that score b-schools seem to be improving, albeit slowly, as the headline said.
Louis Lavelle
Associate Editor
Bloomberg Businessweek

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