What it takes to turn record MBA enrollment for women into real-world progress

January 30, 2023, 1:42 PM UTC
MBA enrollment for women is at record highs, but that doesn't always translate to real-world progress.
Getty Images

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Today’s guest essay comes from Fortune Education reporter Sydney Lake, who examines what it takes to turn gender equity at top MBA programs into real-world progress. Plus: Taylor Swift’s newest music video features a trans man as her love interest and Bed Bath & Beyond defaulted on its credit line. Have a mindful Monday.

– After graduation. At the same time that the Fortune 500 finally hit double-digit representation for female CEOs last year, top MBA programs got one notch closer to achieving gender parity—with some schools even seeing more women enroll than men. The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, a top-ranked MBA program by Fortune, was the first school to see more women than men admitted in 2021 for its class of 2023, and the program continued with gender parity in the following class, as well.

Women accounted for more than 41% of enrollment in full-time MBA programs at the 56 top U.S. business schools that are members of the Forté Foundation, an organization focused on career development and business education for women. That’s a massive jump from the 27% the organization saw two decades ago when it first started tracking enrollment records. 

“Maybe the number’s not quite 50-50, but when you’re down at 25% or 30%, you can feel it,” Elissa Sangster, CEO of the Forté Foundation, tells Fortune. “Women are no longer feeling like ‘an only’ when they go into an MBA classroom, and that’s a huge accomplishment.” Of the schools reporting, the ones with the highest percentage of women students were George Washington University (59%), Johns Hopkins University (52%), and Wharton (50%). 

Although business schools have made strides in attracting, enrolling, and retaining more women MBA candidates, more can be done to ensure these schools are walking the talk. In other words, simply enrolling more women students won’t cut it if we’re hoping to see more female leadership representation in the “real world.” That starts with more female representation in the classroom and giving women chances to flex their leadership skills in clubs and organizations on campus. 

“It’s about more than just diversity day,” says Radford University MBA grad Nicole Gwanzura, who is also the CEO and founder of Education Advancement Consulting. “That’s not enough because are you going to belong there? Are you going to feel that your investment was worth it while you were there?”

Speaking of investments, a full-time MBA can be a huge one. Some top-ranking MBA programs can cost in excess of $200,000 to complete—unless your employer will sponsor you or you receive ample scholarships. Experts agree that cost remains a huge barrier for female MBA candidates in particular. 

“With women earning less than men, on average, finances can be a barrier for women to explore or pursue business school,” says Betty Tran, an MBA student at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, who completed the MBALaunch program with Forté. Organizations like Forté, however, work to provide prospective MBA students with scholarship and fellowship opportunities.

Aside from leveling the financial barrier to entry, business schools should also focus on growing their pipeline of MBA applicants. This means getting more college students or early-career professionals to buy into the idea that an MBA can help them with their career prospects—and maybe even one day contribute to that growing percentage of Fortune 500 C-suite leaders. 

“Schools could do more to get women to understand the value of an MBA degree—even in college,” says Harvard Business School grad Shaifali Aggarwal, who is also CEO of boutique MBA admissions consulting firm Ivy Groupe. “[Schools] know that women can be very strong leaders in business and it really is about attracting that pipeline as much as they can.”

Once business schools have attracted and enrolled female MBA students, there’s work to be done in showing them the variety of career paths available to them upon graduation. Some women MBA students say they still feel in the minority in their quant-heavy courses, like finance and accounting, and see more opportunity for improvement. 

“When you look at applied finance classes, there’s only a sprinkle of women in the program versus marketing,” says Ashleigh Rogers, an MBA student at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business. “It’s about making sure people are supported if they want to pursue financial roles that typically are extremely male-dominated.”

All in all, MBA programs have come a long way in terms of gender representation in the classroom. Now it’s time to help female MBA students shine—and ultimately go on to become the business leaders they’re destined to be.

Schools are “very much committed to making the business school experience be a petri dish for what should happen out in the real world,” Sangster says. “They’re creating these environments where students can really understand the impact of thinking about diversity and equity and inclusion on their campus… so they can lead change as they become those key leaders in business.”

Sydney Lake

The Broadsheet is Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women. Today’s edition was curated by Kinsey Crowley. Subscribe here.


- Control of the purse strings. For the first time in history, four women control the two congressional spending committees, and a Black woman runs the Office of Management and Budget. In an interview together, they swapped stories about the challenges they faced as women rising to power. Associated Press

- Bed Bath & Bankruptcy. Bed Bath & Beyond, led by CEO Sue Gove, has defaulted on its credit line. As inflation continues to rise and sales fall for the home goods retailer, this is the latest sign that the company is headed toward bankruptcy. CNBC

- Healthcare competition. CVS Health and its recent C-suite hire Amy Bricker were named in a lawsuit by Bricker's former employer Cigna. The lawsuit alleged that she violated her non-compete agreement. CVS Health declined to comment, and Bricker has not responded. The legal battle between the two Fortune 100 companies could tip the scale on the recent debate about non-compete agreements. Bloomberg


- Love in 'Lavender Haze.' Taylor Swift's new music video for "Lavender Haze" features trans man Laith Ashley as her love interest. The inclusion of a trans model in this pop culture moment comes at a time when anti-trans movements are taking hold across the country. Them

- Acting and activism. Jane Fonda's three upcoming movies focus on the importance of female friendships. She continues acting at 85 years old to build her platform and bring more people into activism, her squad of female friends included. The Hollywood Reporter

- Fourth term. Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel was reelected for her fourth term in an unusually feisty contest. She was selected by Donald Trump in 2017, but he stayed out of this race even when Florida governor Ron DeSantis endorsed her opponent. New York Times

- Side-lined. Lisa Guerrero called her role as a sideline reporter on Monday Night Football "both a dream job and a complete nightmare." In an excerpt from her upcoming book Warrior: My Path to Being Brave, she recounts how the deluge of media criticism made her lose her confidence and plunged her into depression. Sports Illustrated


For American Muslim women, hijabs affirm their right to choose Washington Post

Sam Smith’s radical centrism The Atlantic

When your show is relegated to cruising altitude Vulture

Jessica Williams is ready to talk it out Vanity Fair


"I’m sure being a female has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, but it’s really less about that than about having the right background to handle the technological changes the company faces."

Jennifer Rumsey on being a Fortune 500 CEO

This is the web version of The Broadsheet, a daily newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women. Sign up to get it delivered free to your inbox.

Read More

CEO DailyCFO DailyBroadsheetData SheetTerm Sheet