MBA programs are nearly reaching gender parity with more than 41% women enrollment

BY Sydney LakeJanuary 27, 2023, 7:47 PM
A class of 2022 banner is displayed as students walk on campus at George Washington University in Washington, DC, as seen in May 2022. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds—AFP/Getty Images)

Although MBA applications dropped slightly in 2022, 14 top business schools in the U.S. achieved women’s enrollment of at least at least 45% in their full-time programs, according to the Forté Foundation, an organization focused on career development and business education for women.  Of the schools reporting to Forté, those with the highest percentage of women MBA students were George Washington University (59%), Johns Hopkins University (52%), and Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (50%). 

Wharton, a top-ranked MBA program by Fortune, was the first M7 school to welcome a class of more women than men in 2021, when the school admitted the class of 2023 that had more women than men. Of admissions made in 2022, 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. That’s a huge leap from the 27% the organization saw two decades ago when they first started tracking MBA 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.” 

Something important to note, however, is that top business schools have a reputational advantage in enrolling more women MBA students, Sangster adds. As top business schools make admissions selections, schools below them in the rankings lose out on candidates in their pool.

“That’s just how the admissions game goes,” Sangster says. “Schools in the lower part of the rankings are always going to struggle a little bit more to fill their class. That means they’re going to probably be last to get there in terms of full [gender] parity.”

How and why MBA programs are starting to reach gender parity

It’s timely that MBA programs overall are nearing that gender parity mark since the Fortune 500 finally hit double-digit representation for women CEOs in 2022. As women gain more representation in industry leadership positions, business schools are working to place a greater emphasis on recruiting women students who plan to take on a variety of career paths.

“What you’re seeing happen in business school is now reflective of all the different types of career paths, all the different types of people who pursue an MBA,” Sangster says. “They’re just doing a much better job of showcasing how an MBA can have an impact in your life and what career opportunities are there for you.”

More MBA programs are also starting to offer admissions programming specifically targeted to women, notes Shaifali Aggarwal, an HBS graduate and CEO of boutique MBA admissions consulting firm Ivy Groupe. These admissions information sessions help women applicants hear from women MBA students about their experiences and what they’ll ultimately get out of the degree. Schools are also starting to focus more broadly on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) topics beginning with the admissions process and tracking through the classroom experience, experts agree.

“Applications are asking questions about DEI coming up in interviews consistently,” Aggarwal says. “Schools are very, very conscious of this aspect, and I think they know that women can be very strong leaders in business and it really is about attracting that pipeline as much as they can.”

The transparency offered by publishing the percentage of women in current and past MBA programs has also been a key step in attracting more women to business school, says Ohemaah Ntiamoah, a 2016 MBA graduate from Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. And while publishing numbers and ratios is a good start, there’s more to consider when making a decision about business schools.

“The school’s reputation is important because as a woman—especially a woman of color—you may be subject to unconscious bias when interviewing,” Ntiamoah says. “It’s often easier for a man with lesser credentials to get the job ahead of you. So the more impressive you can make your resume—truthfully, of course—the better your chances in recruitment.” 

The road to accountability: What business schools still need to work on

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. That starts with moving beyond hitting an enrollment goal and taking performative actions to appear more women-friendly.

“It’s about more than just diversity day,” says Nicole Gwanzura, a Radford University MBA grad 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?”

The investment required to complete a full-time MBA program still remains a huge barrier for many women, experts and students agree. 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. 

“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 work to provide prospective MBA students with scholarship and fellowship opportunities. Since the organization’s inception, it has provided $334 million among more than 13,000 Forté Fellows.

Ashley Ward, a Forté Fellow and a member of the class of 2024 at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, says her top consideration in choosing a program was how to finance her degree.

“I knew that if I was going to go back to school, I would need support financially, and wanted to see what scholarships were attainable for Black females,” she says, which they were. As a Forté Fellow, she earned a scholarship that “helped make my dream a reality.”

Once business schools have attracted and enrolled female MBA students, there’s still more work to be done in showing them the variety of career paths available 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, another 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.”

We’re already starting to see these efforts at top business schools, with Sangster likening the MBA experience to “a petri dish for what should happen out in the real world.”

“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,” she adds.

Growing the MBA pipeline for women

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 contributing 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,” Aggarwal says. “[Schools] know that women can be very strong leaders in business and it really is about attracting that pipeline as much as they can.”

Something else that can be done to help prepare the pipeline of women MBA students is developing more affordable options for test preparation for the GMAT and GRE. These tests still act as a huge barrier to entry for many women MBA applicants, Gwanzura says.

“It’s a tale as old as time. Women—especially women of color—have these super phenomenal stories and work really hard,” she says. “Then, bam, comes the GMAT or GRE.”

These tests are expensive to prepare for, with some prep classes costing $1,800—and then there’s the additional cost to take the test. This cost isn’t accessible for some women MBA candidates, particularly those who didn’t take the tests during or immediately after undergrad when they were still in the “studious mode,” as Gwanzura puts it.

“Some folks just aren’t great test takers,” she says. “Statistically, it’s recommended that you take it while you’re still in school. You’re going to do a little bit better than you would after the fact.”

All-in-all, however, 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.

“I do think things are headed in the right direction, and I’m optimistic that things will get better,” Aggarwal says.

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.