Business Schools

Extra Effort Lures Women MBAs

B-school programs tailored to snagging more female applicants are beginning to show traction, schools say

On a Saturday morning in early November, a group of 200 women in business suits and high heels gathered in a conference room overlooking Washington Square Park, nibbling pastries and sipping coffee. The prospective business school students had come to New York University's Stern School of Business for one of the school's marquee admissions events, "Opening Doors for Women."

The women were whisked through a series of networking events, roundtable discussions with current female students and alums, and speeches from prominent women faculty, says Rebekah Ahn, a first-year MBA student at Stern who attended a similar session last year as a prospective student and helped organize it this fall as a member of the Stern Women in Business club. "The morning is structured in such a way that women walk out and say: 'This is for me. I can really do this.'"

For years, business schools have been working at increasing the number of women in MBA programs, with average female enrollment at most schools languishing in the mid-20% to low-30% range. However, for some schools, women-geared admissions events like these appear to be paying off. The entering class for Stern's full-time MBA this fall, for instance, is 41% female, the highest of any of the top business schools. Indeed, since 2005, women's MBA enrollment has increased by 13%, according to a 2008 study by the Forte Foundation, a consortium of schools working to increase the number of women pursuing MBAs.

Watershed Moment

Driving the change is a renewed effort by admissions officers, women students, and alums to implement new programs and specialized outreach aimed at women, including admissions coffee chats, mentoring programs, and outreach over the summer months. The average female enrollment at 31 business schools tracked by the Forte Foundation is 32% this year, up nearly two percentage points from the year before. But perhaps even more significant, a growing number of business schools, including Cornell University's Johnson School, Babson College, Harvard Business School, Northwestern University's Kellogg School, Duke University's Fuqua School, and Emory University's Goizueta School, are all approaching 40% female enrollment.

It is a watershed moment, for business schools, said Elissa Ellis-Sangster, the Forte Foundation's executive director. "This is the first year we've ever seen anyone at 39%, and no one has ever been at 41%," Sangster said. "These numbers are a great stride forward."

Admissions officers said the numbers reflect a change in mindset on how to target promising female candidates. Randall Sawyer, admissions director at Cornell's Johnson School, said his school's jump in female enrollment from 28% in 2007 to 39% this year represents an "extraordinary rise" for the school and the first time in the school's history that female enrollment is above 30%.

The school's admissions office has made an effort to have more one-on-one conversations with female applicants while out on the road and connected them quickly with current students, alumni, and the school's advisory board, he said. "We really think we've changed the way we approach students." Sawyer said. "It has been a concerted effort."

Early Student Contact

Similar efforts are under way at Babson College, where female enrollment now stands at 37%, a seven-point jump over last year. The school is trying to use a "relationship-based approach" when interacting with female MBA candidates" said Dennis Nations, Babson's admissions director.

For example, if a woman expresses interest in Babson, she will get an expedited phone call back from an admissions office. The school then tries to get her to campus as soon as possible for an admissions event and will often pair her up with a current student involved in the school's Center for Women's Leadership. "The earlier we get them on campus and the earlier we get them connected to current students, the more that points us to success in recruiting them, at least to the point where Babson is at the top of their list," Nations said.

Many of the programs that have sprung up at business schools are relatively new initiatives, such as the coffee chat Kellogg holds for prospective female applicants in the admissions office every Friday afternoon. Several students from the school's Women's Business Association host one of these sessions, a chance for applicants visiting the campus to learn firsthand what the environment is like for women at the school, said Jennifer Stoltz, Kellogg's senior associate director for admissions.

The school also asks first- and second-year women MBA students to hold "winter break coffee chats" in different cities around the country. The results have paid off for the school, which boasts 38% female enrollment in the two-year full-time MBA program this fall, compared with 35% last year, Stolz said.

Candid Questions

Neha Dakwala, a second-year Kellogg student, attended one of the coffee chats when she was a prospective student and now helps run them. "It's a chance for women to be in an informal environment where there is no judgment and they can ask candid questions," she said. "The women who run them were in their shoes not too long ago so they are able to relate to them and answer their questions."

Women alums of schools also are stepping up to recruit a new generation of female MBA students. At the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where women account for 35% of the full-time MBA class of 2010, women alums in 35 cities around the world host events where they invite prospective candidates to their homes for small get-togethers where applicants can learn about the school in an informal environment, said Rosemarie Martinelli, Chicago's director of admissions. "It is the young women alums now who are really helping the young prospective women understand the benefits of getting an MBA," Martinelli said.

Another way that schools are forging connections with women applicants is by reaching out to them early in the application process. At NYU Stern, the Opening Doors event, which takes place in the fall, helps solidify applicants' decision to apply. Last year, 52% of the women who attended the event applied to the school, said Isser Gallogly, Stern's director of admissions.

Many of them also later participate in the school's Stern Women in Business conference in February, where between 60 and 80 of the top female applicants are invited back to the school for admissions interviews and the conference. "People say it is so good to see a school serious about women in business and actually taking action, not just talking about it," Gallogly said. "It's a powerful force."

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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