Men Sit Up and Listen as Women Fill 40% of Business School Seats

Wharton in Pennsylvania.

Wharton in Pennsylvania.

Photographer: Kendall Whitehouse/The Wharton School
  • Wharton, Kellogg and Tuck are among schools with most women
  • Harvard `Manbassadors' support work flexibility and equal pay

More than half a century after top universities began admitting women to their MBA programs, business schools are finally catching up to law and medical schools in gender parity.

Women now comprise 40 percent or more of MBA students at Harvard, Wharton, Yale, Northwestern’s Kellogg, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, MIT’s Sloan, Rochester’s Simon, as well as other schools, according to a new study by the Forte Foundation, which promotes business education for women.

The significance goes far beyond changing the once-macho culture of B-schools. As women approach half of all seats in business programs, they also get closer to receiving half the awards, half the internships and half the top jobs upon graduation. Ultimately, the trend sets the table for more women in corner offices as these students graduate and advance in their careers.

“This should go a long way in building the senior leadership pipeline at companies and on boards,” says Forte executive director Elissa Sangster.

Women’s enrollment in full-time MBA programs climbed to about 36 percent of students from 32 percent four years ago, New York-based Forte found. The increase has already changed the nature of a business school education. Women are influencing the debate over work flexibility and pay discrimination, and men are generally becoming more attuned to what women are looking for in the workplace. All that has men thinking differently about their own careers and futures.

Manbassador Talks

At Harvard Business School, more than 200 of the 548 men in the class of 2017 are members of the Manbassador group, formed two years ago by male students who wanted to support the Women’s Student Association on campus. Manbassadors hold Lean In groups for men who want to discuss their own work and life experiences and goals.

At a lunch earlier this month with some of her students, Robin Ely, a Harvard Business School professor and senior associate dean for culture and community, was struck that the conversation “was all about gender” and workplace flexibility, she says.

“All the men said they’d love at a certain point in their careers to work an 80 percent schedule but didn’t think that as men they could ask for that,” she says. When she first started teaching at Harvard in 2000, “that conversation never happened.”

Sea Change

The scene is similar at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, which saw a 7 percent rise in applications from women last year. Lane McVey was one of those applicants and is now part of an incoming class that is 42 percent women. That’s a 10 percent jump over the prior year and a sea change at the once predominantly male Tuck.

The handful of women who first earned MBAs there in the 1970s were confined to all-female study groups because male classmates chose to be in teams with other men. McVey’s six-person group has an equal number of women and men, half of them international and each with different work experience.

“It’s very coed and everything feels equal, which is something I wanted when applying,” says McVey, who majored in government in college and then worked three years in advertising sales for Major League Baseball.

Ten and even five years ago, only a handful of full-time MBA programs had classes comprised of one-third women, but “now there’s a race to see who’ll get to 50 percent” first, especially as millennial women recognize the opportunities they get with an MBA, Sangster says.

4.4 Percent CEOs

While they fill about half of middle-management positions, women hold just 25 percent of senior jobs and 19 percent of directorships at S&P 500 companies, according to Catalyst, the New York research and advocacy group for women. Only 22 women, or 4.4 percent, are chief executive officers at the nation’s largest companies.

Not that an MBA guarantees equal pay. Women and men with the degree start out earning almost the same money: $98,000 for women and $105,000 for men, according to a Bloomberg survey of those who graduated from 2007 through 2009. But the gap widens sharply. By 2014, the men hauled in a median of $175,000 and women $140,000. Much of the disparity is the result of heftier year-end bonuses that men get, Bloomberg found.

Still, an MBA can be a ticket to the top for women. More than 40 percent of CEOs of both genders at the nation’s 100 largest companies have MBAs, according to Forte. They include General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra, a 1990 Stanford MBA.

Many other C-suite executives also went to business school, including Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc. and author of bestseller “Lean In,” which urges women not to squash their ambitions. Sandberg is a 1995 Harvard MBA.

“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat, just get on," she told students at her alma mater three years ago.

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