Pandemic Stalls Progress on Gender Balance at Business School

Increased interest in MBA programs, across the board, is raising concerns that progress could go into reverse

The economic disruption of coronavirus has brought a rush of business for MBA programs, with business schools reporting record numbers of applications from executives who want to return to education while the opportunity cost of not working is lower.

However, despite the applications bonanza, institutions have failed to make progress on closing the stubborn gender divide between the proportion of men and women enrolling in MBA courses. The fact that more women than men are applying for MBAs has raised concerns that progress made on gender balance could go into reverse.

It has already stalled in the pandemic, according to Forté Foundation, a nonprofit focused on gender parity in business and education. The organization found the proportion of women enrolled in MBAs at its 52 member schools was unchanged last year compared with 2019, despite a surge in demand for the flagship business management qualification.

When Forté was set up in 2001, women accounted for fewer than 28 percent of MBA students in the US. Last year, half its member schools reached 40 percent women’s enrolment in their MBAs.

“Women tend to be more risk-averse than men and the financial commitment to pursue an MBA can be more challenging for them,” says Elissa Sangster, CEO of Forté. “They face the double whammy of typically earning less than men and also holding more student loan debt. Women were disproportionately impacted in the pandemic, so some of these obstacles were exacerbated.”

Women face disproportionate job losses while unpaid domestic burdens are also increasing. “It’s critical that we continue to increase women’s enrollment and not backslide,” says Sangster, pointing out that just six percent of S&P 500 CEOs are women but approximately 40 percent of them have an MBA.

“An MBA can help more women crack the glass ceiling,” she says. “A great deal of research over many years has clearly shown that having a more diverse leadership team contributes to better financial performance, which is needed more than ever now.”

Some women are thinking twice about applying to MBAs

Research from the Graduate Management Admission Council, which runs the GMAT business school entrance exam, found that coronavirus has caused many women to think twice about applying to MBAs. In April 2020, 55 percent of women were concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on their plans to pursue a business masters degree, compared with 37 percent for men. A month earlier, before coronavirus hit, there was little difference between the proportion of men and women.

“It is definitely concerning, because it may create a ripple effect among future candidates,” says Paula Amorim, MBA admissions director for IESE Business School in Spain. “Applicants tend to be naturally drawn towards schools where they can see themselves represented in class. If the numbers of women studying at business schools deaccelerates, this might affect the motivation of future applicants, causing us to lose momentum in our efforts towards gender balance.”

For IESE’s current MBA class, which started in the fall of 2020, there’s the exact same percentage of women as the previous year, 32 percent. Amorim says it’s too soon to speculate on next year’s numbers, but “we definitely feel it is more challenging to retain women this year”.

He says the pandemic is to blame for the lower uptake of MBA places among women. Despite an increase in overall applications, demand for women is being outweighed by stronger demand from men. “Women, in general, may be more stable on their decisions, making them less anti-cyclical than men,” Amorim suggests.

He calls for an active commitment from business schools to keep the percentage of women from dropping, such as targeted scholarships to incentivize enrollment, and focused initiatives to try to attract women that were not initially considering an MBA. “For example, by getting alumnae to inspire women in their network and open their eyes to all the advantages of getting a graduate degree,” says Amorim.

At Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington DC, the proportion of women in the MBA has also remained largely unchanged through the pandemic, at 32 percent.

“I think the business school industry must do a better job of dispelling the myths of the typical business school candidate,” says Shelly Heinrich, associate dean for MBA admissions at Georgetown. “The career options that come out of an MBA are so much more diverse than just typical male-dominated industries like finance and technology. MBAs also pursue jobs in nonprofit and social impact, consumer products, luxury goods, media and entertainment.”  

She says another myth is that you cannot pursue a degree and plan for a family. “It is possible,” says Heinrich. “I had a four-year-old when I entered my Executive MBA program and was still able to balance work, life and family. Certainly, you need a support network to do it. But women need role models.”

Virginie Fougea, global director of admissions, financial aid and scholarships at INSEAD, is cautiously optimistic about the future for women at business school. While her institution reported a slight fall in the proportion of women in the MBA this year, she points out that more women are taking the GMAT. The GRE, an alternative entrance exam, is also seeing strong results with close to half of test takers being women, adds Fougea.  

“Looking at the current applicant pool, we see a 6 percent increase from female applicants. We do not know how many women will actually be admitted yet, but we are very pleased with this current trend.”

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