The top 20 US b-schools have an average female presence of just under 30 per cent. But Wharton competitors Stanford and Harvard both have numbers in the high- or mid-30s, says Jackie Zavitz, Senior Associate Director of MBA Admissions at the school: the difference is not exactly striking.
Like other schools, Wharton has seen a very gradual increase in female students over the last five years or so. “In fact, having 40 per cent women on campus this year is most significant for its symbolic value,” says Zavitz.
Nevertheless, the school is happy to have attracted so many female applicants this year. Like an increasing number of business schools, Wharton has implemented women-focused outreach programs for a number of years now. In addition to looking for suitable candidates in traditionally male-dominated industries like consulting and engineering, the recruitment teams targeted areas such as consumer goods and health services which have a larger female workforce.
“What a lot of women don’t realize,” says Zavitz, “is the flexibility that an MBA can offer: there are so many different industries you could choose to enter after graduation.” It is taking a long time, however, to get this message across. “And in the end, we can only admit more women to the degree when they actually apply,” she says.
Business schools are struggling to catch up with other graduate schools, such as law or medicine, in attracting women. “One major problem with the MBA is that there are not enough female role models in the business world who would inspire girls to enter this field.”
“We have worked very hard to do away with some of the stereotypes MBAs and business schools are often associated with,” says Zavitz. “If women think that b-schools are only about competition, for instance, not many will feel inclined to go.”
Male students have also had to correct some of their pre-conceptions about women as more of them arrive on campus. One of them is Christopher Volk, a second year MBA student at Wharton and a former Naval Officer from Ohio.
Seeing empowered, professional women on a par with their male counterparts was a novelty for the 37-year-old. Women made up only 10 per cent of graduates from Naval Academy, a percentage that didn’t change much when he entered the Navy. At Wharton, Volk has learned some very important lessons for life: “I understand now that women are more than just a supporting element. They are just as capable as guys,” he says.
In fact, says Volk, men can learn a thing or two from their female colleagues: “When it comes to solving problems, men tend to jump to conclusions quickly. Women, on the other hand, see the bigger picture and come up with less obvious, alternative solutions.”
The female presence at Wharton adds to its general spirit of diversity, says Volk, not only of gender, but also of nationalities, cultures and industries. “I have learned that it is important to be pushed out of your comfort zone. No homogenous group can come up with as good results as one composed of people with different perspectives,” he adds.
Of course, the social side of business school life has also changed with more women on campus. The Wharton Women in Business Club is offering coffee chats to applicants as well as general wellbeing support for women. And Volk knows of five close friends who have “met a significant other at Wharton.”
Admissions Director Zavitz is thrilled that business schools are slowly but surely arriving in the 21st century when it comes to gender equality. When she found out about the 40 per cent women intake, her first reaction was: “Holy cow, that is so exciting!”
As a woman, you obviously hope for these things to happen, she says: “It’s a sign of the times - I hope.”