Why women are the MBA minority and how that could change

BY Jason ArmestoJuly 20, 2021, 2:00 AM
Martin Laksman

A harsh reality of the business world is that women are greatly outnumbered. Despite making up nearly 51% of the population, only 7.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs and only 27% of Fortune 500 board members are women. Just as the professional business world hasn’t reached gender parity, neither have business schools.

While law school and medical school have achieved the 50% mark for women enrolled, that has yet to happen in MBA programs. The Forté Foundation, a nonprofit focused on gender parity in business, reports that among its 52 member schools, just 38.5% of full-time MBA students are women. This reflects an undeniable gender gap, but also points to some progress: As recently as 1995, for instance, there were zero female CEOs on the Fortune 500 list.

“We’ve been doing this for so long, and we thought the journey wouldn’t take this long, but I do think the numbers are just now starting to be equitable,” says Elissa Sangster, CEO of Forté. The foundation partners with some of the top MBA programs in the U.S., Europe, and Canada, all of them committed to achieving more female representation. 

One sign of that equity is an all-time–high number of Forté member schools reporting 40% or more women enrolled, with some schools even eclipsing 45%. While those numbers are encouraging, they are not the norm. 

“If a woman goes into a classroom and she’s walking out of graduation with 42% or 45% women in her class, that’s pretty equitable, and we’re not going to say that’s not good enough, but the problem is so many business schools aren’t over that hump yet.”

Business school barriers for women

The majority of college educated adults over the past four decades have been women, so why is it that they remain the minority in business school? One reason is finances. A 2016 Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) study found that 30% of U.S. women cited “obtaining funds” as their biggest challenge. 

But it’s not just a matter of money. In 2000, the global nonprofit Catalyst surveyed hundreds of women MBA graduates. The respondents pointed to a number of barriers that keep women from pursuing MBA degrees, including a lack of female role models, incompatibility of business careers with work/life balance, a lack of confidence in math skills, and a lack of encouragement from employers. 

That study helped inspire the creation of Forté. “I think even as we’ve seen numbers grow, a lot of those things are deep rooted in the challenges,” says Sangster. “There’s also the sense of investing in yourself, and often women are not thinking of themselves as a good investment. So we really try to talk to women about all of those things—that taking the time on your career is worth that investment.”

And believing in yourself is also part of the equation. 

“I think it’s a matter of knowing that you can do it,” says Rebecca Mallen-Churchill, director of graduate student recruitment at Arizona State’s W.P. Carey School of Business. “What I’ve seen in my life as a professional woman is that we’re often our toughest critics, and we’re often the person that stands in our way the most.” 

Recruiting and retaining women MBAs

One way that MBA programs can attract more women candidates is through recruitment. According to a GMAC survey, 64% of full-time MBA programs in the U.S. reported making special recruitment efforts to increase the number of female applicants to their programs. These efforts have certainly paid off for schools that have neared gender parity. 

The Forté Foundation found a record eight of its member schools enrolled over 45% women in their full-time MBA programs. Fortune spoke to three of those schools, and all of them cited recruitment efforts as key to their success in surpassing that 45% mark. 

At Arizona State, Mallen-Churchill credits a personalized recruitment approach and its Women at ASU event for attracting more women to its program. Events like these, which feature women alumni connecting with prospective women candidates, can encourage more applications that translate to more enrollment. 

“When you have leaders that came from a program, really made it, and are giving back to female leaders of tomorrow, that’s a very enticing thing,” says Liesl Riddle, associate dean of graduate programs at the George Washington University School of Business. “Being able to put front and center the female leaders that have been born through our programs as well as those who live and work there has always been a key part of our strategy.”

Programs that successfully recruit more women have also been able to retain them. “An organization can be successful in recruiting more women, but if those women are not thriving and not getting advancement opportunities, they’re not going to stay,” says Shari Hubert, associate dean of admissions at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “It’s not enough to just bring in underrepresented populations; they also have to come in and feel as though they can thrive.”

By offering a supportive network, schools can make sure women succeed in their MBA program and beyond. This results in what Hubert refers to as a “virtuous cycle”—prospective female candidates communicate with successful female alumni, those candidates join the program, and their own positive experiences motivate them to recruit more women to that program in the future. 

Women MBAs are good for business

A 2018 GMAC study found that among full-time MBA alumni, nine in 10 women agreed that earning their MBA was rewarding and that they would do it again. This could be due in part to businesses increasingly recognizing the value of gender, cultural, and ethnic diversity. 

For instance, a McKinsey & Co. study found that in 2017, companies with the most gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies with the least. If more women in leadership equals more profits, then companies could be part of the solution, particularly if they step up their efforts to encourage female employees to advance their education, actively recruit more women who have MBAs, and have women in the C-suite—all of which might encourage other women to pursue an MBA.

Hubert says that having more women in the workplace just makes sense. “We’re 50% of the population, and we should be reflected in that,” she says. “There should be gender equity across the board, and it starts with our business schools.”

Finally, if schools can deliver, gender equity could permeate the entire business world. 

“I’m really looking forward to the day where gender parity isn’t an anomaly any longer, where it just is what it is and everyone has the same fair shot,” says Mallen-Churchill.