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MIT Sloan's Maura Herson: Millennial Women Are Leaning Into MBA Programs

Companies are recognizing the value of women leaders

What will it take to get more young women interested in pursuing an MBA? At a time when the dearth of women leaders in corporate America, government, and beyond dominates the national dialogue, it’s a pertinent question.

Women have outnumbered men on college campuses since the 1980s. They’re a majority in most masters degree programs and they comprise roughly half of all law and medical school students.

But this is not the case on business school campuses: the percentage of women in the full-time MBA applicant pool has lingered between 34% and 39% for the last seven years.

Nevertheless, business schools are starting to make progress. This year’s incoming class at MIT Sloan, for instance, has a greater percentage of women than ever before. Of the 402 students in the MBA class of 2017, 41% are female. Our peer schools have recently posted similar numbers.

Research also shows that our female MBA students are just as successful as their male classmates: according to a study we conducted internally, there is no statistical difference in GPA outcomes by gender over the past decade.

These developments didn’t happen overnight; rather, they are the result of the confluence of a few different factors. First, the business environment is changing. Companies recognize the value of women leaders, and they are keen to make headway with gender parity in their senior leadership positions.

Second, business schools increasingly recognize the importance of having a diversity of perspectives in the classroom and, as a result, are making concerted efforts to raise awareness among women about the advantages of management education, and to make sure women feel supported within the MBA community.

The climate and culture of business school have become much more welcoming to women. There was a time when a lot of business schools were male-dominated institutions churning out competitive would-be wolves of Wall Street.

That was a turn-off for many women. Times have changed. Business schools are now much more supportive of women in the classroom and elsewhere. At MIT Sloan, for instance, one-third of our business school cases in the core curriculum feature a female protagonist.

A third contributing factor — which is perhaps most important — is the change in mind-set of this generation of young women. Today’s young women seek rewarding professional and home lives and they view business school as a means to help them achieve those things.

This generation of young women has been empowered like none other. They played competitive sports as kids. They were shoulder to shoulder with boys in school. And they have been encouraged and supported in their pursuit of higher education far more than their mothers and grandmothers.

And yet, even if they haven’t personally experienced sexism, they have a deep understanding of the problems of gender inequity.

This generation is coming of age in the era of Lean In, and today’s young women feel a special determination to face the challenges of discrimination in the workplace and beyond. Many of them aspire to be mothers and wives and partners and have a rewarding career. So they are starting to plan ahead.

In the past, when I spoke at women’s undergraduate events about the benefits of management education, the audience members would often say things like: “Maybe I will do a part-time MBA someday.” They didn’t aim as high as their male counterparts and consider the most competitive programs, which are often full time.

(This may be partly explained by the tricky timetable an MBA presents for a woman. Most MBA programs ask for four to five years of prior professional experience and that requirement presents a problem for women who would like to start families at about that point in their careers.)

But millennial women don’t see obstacles. The young women I talk to today view an MBA as an investment that will provide them maximal flexibility.

With this credential, they know that if they decide to take a professional pause they will be able to re-enter the workforce more easily and confidently with the advanced skills, rich networks, and brand recognition of their MBA.

Business schools, like the overall marketplace, have a growing appreciation for the value of diversity. In light of a growing body of evidence that indicates women have a different management skill-set from men — research shows women tend to be better at communicating, giving feedback, and building consensus — women are seen as an important element of that diversity.

Male MBA students benefit from learning alongside, and working closely with, women in the classroom.

As the start of a new academic year is upon us, the message to young women is loud and clear: we need you!

Maura Herson is the Director of the MBA Program at the MIT Sloan School of Management


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