For Chinese Women, U.S. MBAs Are All the Rage

(Corrects name of company where Crystal Ma will be interning this summer.)

Gail Hu first considered an MBA degree in the U.S. while a student at Fudan University in Shanghai. After three years as a bank trader, she entered the Stanford Graduate School of Business to gain international exposure so that she can help Chinese companies grow.

"I'll have an edge," Hu, 26, said in an interview.

Hu is part of a wave of women from China, Taiwan, and Vietnam pursuing U.S. MBAs, and their numbers are driving up the overall number of women in such programs, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, the Reston (Va.)-based group that administers the GMAT test for business school applicants. Last year, a record 105,900 women took the exam, or 40 percent of all test takers. Women now outnumber men in East Asia taking the test, according to a council report.

"Countries are investing more intensively in women, and business schools are making efforts to make it easier for women to think about their programs," said Michelle Sparkman-Renz, GMAC's director of research communications. "That really continues to turn the spigot so that more and more women are coming through the pipeline."

At Stanford University (Stanford Full-Time MBA Profile), near Palo Alto, Calif., women made up 39 percent of this year's entering MBA class, said Lisa Giannangeli, director of graduate business admissions. For the past few years, the school has hosted a conference for female applicants to learn about the program. This year's event attracted women from China, Japan, Peru, Spain, and Russia, Giannangeli said.

China, India

Women from mainland China are helping boost female enrollment in U.S. MBA programs, said Elissa Ellis-Sangster, director of the Forté Foundation, a group of 36 business schools working to increase the number of women MBAs. Members include Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile), University of Chicago Booth School of Business (Booth Full-Time MBA Profile), and University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile).

In an April survey, 13 of 14 Forté member schools said China or India accounted for the largest number of overseas women in their classes, Ellis-Sangster said.

"The companies that we work with are very interested in seeing more of these Chinese women in MBA programs because they want to ultimately have them return to their home countries and work for the conglomerates and large multinationals," Ellis-Sangster said.

China's gross domestic product expanded 9.7 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier and the World Bank last week raised its forecast for China, predicting full-year growth of 9.3 percent.

Top Jobs

Many Chinese women considering business school aspire to top jobs, according to The Battle for Female Talent in China, a study released in March by the Center for Work-Life Policy, a New York nonprofit group. The report was based on interviews with more than 1,000 college-educated women. Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Businessweek, was a corporate sponsor of the study.

About 76 percent of Chinese women aspire to a top job, compared with 52 percent of American women, the study found. China's 1979 one-child policy has led women to pursue education in greater numbers, with parents often encouraging graduate degrees, said Ripa Rashid, an executive vice-president at the center.

Helen Ma, 25, a first-year MBA student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, wants to become a chief financial officer. She spent five years as an accountant in Beijing before enrolling. She is one of 15 students from mainland China in her class, and more than half of them are women, said Ma, who is considering working in the U.S. for a few years.

Leadership Rising

"Many Chinese companies are expanding their businesses and, in the long run, they would like to hire people that have this overseas education background and working experience," Ma said.

Women now hold 34 percent of senior management roles in China, excluding Hong Kong, up from 31 percent in 2009, according to a 2011 Grant Thornton International Business Report, a survey of global companies.

China makes up the second-largest citizen group of GMAT test takers, after the U.S. Last year, about 63 percent of Chinese examinees were women, and of that group, 70 percent were under the age of 25, GMAC's Sparkman-Renz said. The majority of Chinese women, or 82 percent, send GMAT scores to U.S. schools, with their top program choices being masters of finance or accounting, followed by MBAs, she said.

Chinese women are flocking to the Boston University School of Management (Boston Full-Time MBA Profile), where they represent more than a third of applicants for the master's program in mathematical finance, said Christopher Storer, director of admissions. Application volume for the program from Chinese women more than tripled this year, compared with 2009, he said.

At Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management (Owen Full-Time MBA Profile) in Nashville, about two-thirds of this year's applications from China for a master's of science in finance came from women. Many are graduates of top schools such as Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said John Roeder, Owen's admissions director, in an e-mail.

"This pipeline into U.S. programs is starting at the undergraduate level in China, extending into master of science finance programs and will soon hit the MBA programs in the next few years," Roeder said.

Crystal Ma, 23, headed straight to Owen's master's of science in finance program after graduating from Shanghai Jiao Tong last year. China's job market has tightened for undergraduate business majors, and a master's degree is considered almost an "entry-level" requirement at many companies, she said.

The degree will help her earn promotions more easily and gain access to better jobs at large banks and security firms, said Ma, who will be an investment banking intern this summer at the Hong Kong office of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).

"Having a degree from the U.S. will be a huge benefit during the interview process because my English has greatly improved and I'll have a competitive advantage when I go back to China," Ma said.

Vietnamese Students

More Chinese women are applying to the Thunderbird School of Global Management (Thunderbird Full-Time MBA Profile) in Glendale, Ariz., said Jay Bryant, the director of admissions. Last year, there was a 50 percent to 60 percent increase in applications from China, mostly from women, for the master's of science in global management, he said.

Women in Vietnam, Taiwan, and Thailand are also looking to advanced business degrees in the U.S., and outnumber men in taking the GMAT, GMAC said. Last year, women made up 57 percent of all examinees in Taiwan, 59 percent in Vietnam, and 58 percent in Thailand.

Some are trickling into U.S. business schools such as Thunderbird, which has two female Vietnamese MBA students in its first-year class, Bryant said.

"A few years ago, we expected to see Vietnamese students every few years," Bryant said. "We are now bringing in three or four a year, and we are beginning to see significant numbers."

An MBA from the U.S. can significantly boost opportunities and salary, said Vu Dinh Hong Van, a Vietnamese student at Stanford's business school. She will start work at a management consulting firm in San Francisco after graduating this year, and plans to eventually return to Vietnam to work in education.

"Having a degree from abroad automatically puts you into a much more advanced role in Vietnam than a person who graduated from a local top college," she said. "You can get a much higher position and salary faster. It's a very big plus."

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