Why B-Schools Struggle to Enroll More Women

Taking younger students would draw more female applicants.

Photographer: Getty Images

Today, women are almost as likely as men to fill the seats of medical school and law school classrooms. Yet the share of women enrolled in MBA programs hasn’t risen above 37.2 percent in the past decade, according to the more than 100 schools providing full-time MBA enrollment figures in surveys by AACSB International, an accrediting organization. “There’s a frustration on the part of a lot of women, and probably men, too, that we haven’t made more progress,” says Amy Hillman, the dean at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business.

In August the White House convened 150 leaders from top business schools and had them sign a pledge to take steps to boost female enrollment by cultivating potential applicants early on in their education and by offering more financial aid. “When business schools are missing out on a large share of female college graduates, they are missing out on an extremely large share of the top qualified college graduates,” says Betsey Stevenson, a University of Michigan economist who served on President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers and helped lead the August summit. “If they want to continue to be a relevant part of the training in the 21st century, they are going to have to make changes that will make them more attractive to women.”

Deans say business schools suffer from a unique timing problem. Unlike law and medical schools, which tend to enroll students soon after they finish college, the full-time MBA program is designed for people who’ve already proved themselves professionally. Elite B-schools typically prefer that applicants have about five years of work experience, which means the average MBA student is 30 years old at graduation, Bloomberg data show. Women in their late 20s who think they’ll want to have children at some point may feel they’d do better racking up career experience than taking two years off for business school. “You’ve got some prime childbearing years and prime career trajectory years, and I think we are seeing women who are not willing to come out of [the workforce],” says Arizona State’s Hillman.

There’s evidence that lowering the work experience requirement for applicants helps make classes more female. George Washington University School of Business mandates a minimum of two years, and 41 percent of its MBA students are women. Also, the same share of women and men enroll in specialized business master’s programs, such as accounting and marketing, which often don’t require any on-the-job experience, according to AACSB.

“If we decide to let women go straight through [to business school after college] and lower that bar, there’s no question that we would get more women in,” says Sarah Fisher Gardial, dean at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business. But at what cost? She and some other deans argue that awarding the degree to younger students would make it less valuable. Students, they say, learn more when everyone in the classroom brings his or her work history to bear. Says Fisher Gardial: “You really are setting up a richer educational process, because the participants learn more from their fellow classmates.”

Women may also have trouble seeing themselves at business school because the classes are overwhelmingly led by male professors. The pledge signed by the 47 schools in August also committed them to try to boost the number of women instructors. Bhagwan Chowdhry, a finance professor at the University of California at Los Angeles’s Anderson School of Business, has argued that because of the limited number of women Ph.D.s in economics fields, a mandate to hire more women professors at business schools could end up lowering the caliber of faculty. Anderson’s dean, Judy Olian, who says she’s made hiring women professors a priority, counters: “If anything, our standards have risen.”

To tempt women to take time out from their careers to pursue an MBA, elite business schools have ratcheted up the amount of aid targeted to female applicants. In 2015, 36 MBA programs affiliated with the Forté Foundation, a consortium of B-schools and corporations that promotes the advancement of women in business, awarded $18.5 million in scholarships to women, up from $5.6 million in 2010.

“There is no better time to apply to an MBA program for a woman,” says Idalene Kesner, the dean at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. When Kesner’s daughter, who’s 26, mentioned she was thinking about business school, Kesner advised her to pounce. “My advice is, ‘Think now, think fast.’ ”

The bottom line: B-schools have made less progress than law and medical schools in boosting female enrollment, which is stuck at 37.2 percent.

(Corrects figure for share of women enrolled in full-time MBA programs to 37.2 to reflect a broader survey sample.)
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