A New Push to Pull In Women

Universities, businesses, and nonprofits are joining forces to redress the gender imbalance still so prevalent in U.S. B-schools

Bita Javadizadeh, an associate in private banking at JP Morgan Chase, felt "perfectly comfortable" attending Columbia's B-school from 1997 to 1999. She had spent time researching to find an MBA program that had, among other things, gender diversity. At most schools, the percentage of female MBA students was 30% or less.

"I remember looking at Chicago, and that just terrified me," she says. "I think they were in the teens." Her class of Columbia MBA hopefuls was 36% female, and she says she never felt she stood out or was treated differently because of her gender.

If she were doing her research now, she would find things haven't changed much. Chicago's newest MBA class is just 22% female, and many other B-schools struggle to get one-third of their lecture-hall seats filled by women. This year, on average, 35% of the new full-time MBA students at 251 B-schools worldwide are female, according to BusinessWeek Online data. The picture is bleaker at BusinessWeek's top-30 U.S. MBA programs, where just 28% of first-year MBAs are female. On the bright side, at least the numbers haven't gone down.


  Such statistics are the firepower behind a new nonprofit organization scheduled to meet on Nov. 6. The group still lacks a name -- that's on the agenda for the first meeting -- but it has an impressive pedigree. Spearheaded by Michigan Business School and supported by a variety of B-schools, nonprofits, and corporations, the organization aims to increase the number of women in boardrooms by first increasing the number of women attending B-schools worldwide.

They say they can achieve that by educating undergraduate women about the benefits and flexibility of a business career, which they'll do by staging events on campuses and coordinating summer internships. "Rather than working at the ice-cream shop, can we find a way to get them some exposure to business?" asks Jeanne Wilt, assistant dean of admissions and career development at Michigan and the founding executive director of the new organization.

If fund-raising efforts are successful -- Wilt says they need about $20 million over three years -- the group should also offer a couple of hundred scholarships to women pursuing graduate degrees in business. "Business education and business networks are two powerful things that can help a woman at any time in her career," says Wilt.


  The organization's mission is based on findings in a study produced last year by Michigan Business School, Michigan's Center for the Education of Women, and Catalyst, a nonprofit organization focusing on women in business. The study, "Women and the MBA: Gateway to Opportunity" (see BW, 5/22/00, "The MBA: It's Still a Guy Thing"), found that while female and male grads of graduate business programs had high levels of satisfaction, they also noted negative perceptions of business among women and barriers to entry such as lack of encouragement from employers. "We need to do more research on how women are making decisions about business schools," says Wilt.

"We believe we're missing out on some talented people, many of them women, because they choose not to pursue business careers," says Joyce Mullen, director of service operations for Dell Computer.

That shouldn't be too difficult, given the range of organizations and schools committed to the effort. In addition to Michigan, other members of this new organization are Dell, Deloitte Consulting, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Kraft Foods, Procter & Gamble, Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, The Committee of 200, U-M Center for the Education of Women, and the business schools at Columbia, Dartmouth, California-Berkeley, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia.


  Some members have already had some success in attracting more women. The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the number of underrepresented minorities attending business schools, helps fund about 500 students through B-school annually. Of those, 42% are women.

"We have some of the same goals [as the new organization] -- and Michigan is one of our schools and has been a front-runner when it comes to diversity in the classroom," says Phyllis Buford, president and CEO of the consortium. "The perception is that business school is heavily quantitative, and women shy away from that. Women also have fears that many corporations aren't socially responsible. [It'll take a lot of work to do] away with those myths, and we need to have more role models."

Though some schools report higher-than-average female enrollments, the organization's founding members hope that B-schools will act in concert to increase the number of women enrolled in all of them, rather than compete for the top talent from the small pool of female applicants. Stanford and New York University's B-schools enrolled the largest percentage (38%) of women this year, while Washington University's Olin School of Business in St. Louis attracted just 18%.

"If a school thought of as more competitive than us is taking more women [off its wait list], we end up losing a few women," says Joe Fox, associate dean and director of the MBA program at Olin. "And a few means a lot in a small program like ours, which enrolls 150 [new MBAs per year]."


  Of all years to launch a donation-based nonprofit, 2001 isn't ideal. "Starting a woman's venture in this economy will be a challenge," admits David Downes, director of MBA programs at University of Berkeley's Haas School of Business. As companies tighten their purse strings, the organization may have to adjust its short-term goals. Wilt expects the group will establish membership dues to cover operating expenses and form a fund-raising subcommittee at its inaugural meeting.

Anna Lloyd, president and executive director of the Committee of 200, a nonprofit organization that seeks to increase the number of female entrepreneurs and corporate leaders, is nevertheless optimistic. "Collectively, we can have much more power and make more systemic impact," she says. She hopes the group's influence will extend to curriculums, with schools using more female-centered case studies.

Javadizadeh says she was happy with her B-school experience and tries to help recruit more women for Columbia, but she hopes that B-school environments will change for female students. "I don't see why," she says, "we shouldn't be at 50-50."

By Mica Schneider in New York

Edited by Robin J. Phillips

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.