Women Now Make Up 40% of Students at Top MBA Programs

November 9, 2015, 5:54 PM UTC
Harvard Business School Campus
Photograph by Getty Images/Moment RM

The good news: More women are enrolling in full-time MBA programs. The bad news: The pace of change isn’t exactly breathtaking.

A new report reveals that the average enrollment of women in full-time MBA programs at 36 business schools climbed from 32% to 36% between 2011 and 2015. At 12 of the schools—including Harvard Business School, Yale School of Management, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University—women account for at least 40% of students.

The report comes from Forté Foundation, a nonprofit consortium of companies, business schools and the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), and included enrollment figures from the 36 schools that are Forté members.

Virginia Ware Myers, executive director of The National Association of Women MBAs (NAWMBA), a nonprofit women’s business association, says it’s important to recognize the progress. However, an increase of less than 1% a year is tough to celebrate too heartily, especially when you consider that women have been outpacing men in overall degree attainment in recent years. “I think we’re definitely looking at something that could be better,” Myers says.

Looking at the numbers

Indeed, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), women have generally been earning more degrees than men since 2000. In 1990, the percentage of male and female 25- to 29-year-olds who had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher were not measurably different. However, in 2014, 37% of women earned bachelor’s degrees compared with 31% of men.

According to the 2015 GMAC Application Trends Survey, which tracked responses from 426 MBA programs, the proportion of women represented in the applicant pools for all programs in 2015 has grown since 2011, with the exception of the Master in Accounting program, which remained flat. The GMAC report found women made up the majority of applicants in three programs:

  • Master in Marketing and Communications (62%)
  • Master of Accounting (57%)
  • Master in Management (55%)


At what point parity?

So, what will it take to get MBA programs to the 50-50 mark?

It’s a complex question, says Myers. Organizations like Forté help increase the numbers by providing guidance, resources, and funding to women pursuing their MBAs, she says. Other important steps: prompting employers to hire women with MBAs, getting more women into business school professor and deanships, and increasing the number of female CEOs and other top execs.

While some observers may be frustrated by the slow rise in enrollment numbers, Elissa Sangster, executive director of Forté, argues that we shouldn’t overlook the progress that’s been made.

“I think we’re going to continue to see the schools who have achieved 40% head toward 50%, and I think a line has been drawn in the sand,” she says. “Other schools are looking at how they can get to 40% as well because they want to be a part of that story. I do think it’s a positive trend.”

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