While the strong economy has caused a drop in MBA applications worldwide, the percentage of women enrolled in leading business schools continues to grow, according to fresh data. Schools have traditionally struggled to tackle imbalances among under-represented groups, including women, but the new figures have given them hope that the sector can eventually reach gender parity.
The numbers were published last November by Forté Foundation, an alliance of women, companies and business schools. While MBA applications declined 3.4 percent overall in 2022, after rising in the first two years of the pandemic, the percentage of women enrolled among Forté member business schools rose to an all-time high of 41.4 percent. Those 56 schools include Harvard, Yale and London Business School.
In a little more than a decade, women’s full-time MBA enrollment at Forté schools has climbed nearly 10 percent, from 31.8 percent in 2011. The results are surprising given the overall downturn in MBA demand because of the hot job market keeping people in the workforce, reducing the pool of women who may otherwise apply to an MBA.
The progress has been made by schools taking a more granular approach to building their classes, by systematically breaking down their application sources and creating marketing and recruitment tactics that focus on women, according to Elissa Sangster, CEO at Forté.
“They’re reviewing their applicant pool and looking at representation and intersectionality and being deliberate about saying ‘you can be an MBA and we want you here’,” Sangster says.
“Many schools are also making sure representation isn’t just an admissions focus. They’re working to attract strong women faculty and administrators to lead their programs while also creating inclusive classrooms that value and respect students from all backgrounds.”
Financial concerns: a key barrier to MBAs
Cambridge Judge Business School, in the UK, enrolled 47 percent women in its MBA last year. It supports women to consider and apply for several Forté Fellowship Awards and other scholarships that offset the cost of tuition, which can be substantial at the top schools.
In the US, 30 percent of women candidates said cost was the main barrier to getting an MBA, compared to 9 percent of men, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC).
Business schools that partner with Forté have awarded $334 million to more than 13,000 female students to date.
“Ultimately, an MBA is an investment in a person’s future, a commitment to seeking new opportunities; often, taking time out of the job market and striving for fresh directions can be daunting,” says Annwen Gray, head of MBA admissions and recruitment for the Cambridge MBA.
“But if you look at our employment data the facts are clear: graduates make the return they aimed to.” Within three years, alumni of the school’s program increased their salary by 96 percent, to $167,410, according to data it reported to the Financial Times.
Business schools are seen as one way to change the balance of power in the workplace, because an MBA is proven to help women change their career trajectories and boost earning power.
“An MBA can be pivotal in seeking career change, but also gives students the broad knowledge, practical experiences and networks to give them confidence to seek more senior roles,” adds Gray.
Gender-balance is critical to commercial success
The Rotman School of Management in Toronto, Canada, enrolled 45 percent women in its MBA last year, through scholarships, networking opportunities and mentoring support from successful female leaders. “Companies and organizations recognize that a gender-balanced workforce and leadership team is critical to success,” says Maria Jimena Rivera, managing director of MBA programs at Rotman.
But she also highlights several major barriers that women continue to face on a personal and professional level in pursuing an MBA. For example, women can experience more funding challenges and have greater family responsibilities.
“In the workplace and particularly in the male-dominated industries, it is more likely for women than men to experience their credentials being challenged or under-valued,” Jimena Rivera says.
“If business schools and organizations don’t change our perspectives on how we assess our talented women candidates and how we support their success, these barriers will perpetuate the roadblocks,” she adds.
There are also barriers when it comes to the MBA application process, from access to experts to confidence around standardized testing, says Sangster at Forté. GMAC has previously reported that there exists a “grade gap”, with women typically having a lower total score than men on its MBA entrance exam.
“Finally, there are still representation barriers,” adds Sangster. “Seeing a woman with your same background getting an MBA and being a leader is key to building a diverse pipeline.”
She says that reaching gender parity at business schools is a multi-layered problem with no magic bullet. “But we've made real and meaningful progress toward gender parity, and we won’t rest until we get there.”