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Women In Business School: Record Numbers Of Women Fill Top MBA Programs

After years of lowly female enrolment figures, schools finally practice what they preach

Tue Sep 8 2015

When it comes to women in business, business schools have long lobbied for better representation of women at the top. After years of lowly female enrolment figures, it seems they are finally beginning to practice what they preach.

Given a head of steam by an initiative at the White House last month when 40 top schools made pledges to boost their diversity, education is riding a wave of inclusive sentiment among business.

Surging female enrolment figures have been reported by leading schools this year. Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business this month said a record 42% of its incoming class of MBAs are women, a 10% increase from a year earlier. Wharton School said it increased the percentage of women in its new class to 43% from 40% last year. Chicago Booth is up to 41% from 36% in 2014. And Kellogg School hit 43%, up by 5% on last year.

Bill Boulding, dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, says that tangible steps are being taken by business schools to make sure diversity is a priority in their institutions.

“At business schools, we have the opportunity to make a tremendous impact on how future leaders think about challenges facing families in the workforce,” he says.

The substantial increases come after growing concerns over the lack of diversity in top MBA programs, mirroring a broader problem in the corporate world.

This is the result of investment on the part of schools, with many deploying new strategies to target women for their degree programs.

In recent months, several schools have made eye-catching moves to offer a market to women. Harvard Business School in May launched the Gender Initiative — a bid to promote gender equity in business and society — and targets students at women-only colleges. MIT Sloan School has been hosting women-specific recruiting events on its Cambridge campus, and holds networking events across the US, says Dawna Levenson, director of MBA admissions.

California’s Berkeley-Haas School launched the Gender Equity Initiative, which saw an enhanced outreach campaign to boost the number of women in its MBA. This contributed to a 50% year-over-year jump in female student numbers.

“Raising awareness around gender dynamics has led to changed behaviours, in particular our students’ willingness and courage to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations,” says Stephanie Fujii, assistant dean for the full-time MBA.

It is not just North America that is leading in the diversity race. Diversification is becoming urgent among business schools everywhere. And it is yielding results. For China’s Fudan University School of Management, 59% of the MBA class last year were female. At Lancaster University Management School and Imperial College in the UK, around 50% of MBAs were women.

Meanwhile, a network of Australian schools in August committed to raising $20 million to attract 320 new female MBAs over three years. “We believe that by addressing the inequality at enrolment level, we could have a real impact on the numbers of women working in senior management,” says Alex Frino, dean of Macquarie Graduate School of Management.

Schools, however, have their work cut out. Susan Vinnicombe, professor of women and leadership at Cranfield School of Management, says that business schools must market their programs better to women and introduce more incentives to attend, such as bursaries.

The worry is that corporations’ diversity efforts will suffer if business schools fail to provide an adequate pipeline of female business leaders.  

“Continuing to see a larger percentage of women enrolled is important for future leadership around the globe,” says Elissa Sangster, executive director of Forté Foundation, which helps women launch business careers. “MBAs aren’t the only way to become leaders, but it’s a key pipeline.”

Dr Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, associate professor at Henley Business School, says that women need to feel the investment in a postgraduate program is worth it.  

“I don’t think this is about business schools per se; it’s about companies demonstrating a strong pipeline of women having completed their MBA studies,” she says.

The increase in women throughout the top MBA programs may also be the result of more women sitting the GMAT, the standard business school entrance exam. New data from test administrator GMAC show that more women than men are taking the exam in countries including Finland, Russia, and China, where 17,479 more females than males are studying for the GMAT.

However, Dianne Bevelander, executive director of Rotterdam School’s Erasmus Centre for Women and Organizations, says that addressing the gender question will take more than finding a solution to the recruitment challenge.

“Our academic and administrative leadership too often mirrors business in being overwhelmingly male-dominated,” she says. “….Until we begin to seriously redress these challenges — as difficult as that is, and as incrementally as this needs to be done — business schools will be unable to deliver the change they aspire to.”