How COVID affected the number of women MBA applicants

BY Jason ArmestoJuly 19, 2021, 02:00 am
Martin Laksman

Amid a once-in-a-century pandemic, business schools saw an explosion in applications from women. Among full-time MBA programs, 62% of schools reported growth in applications from female candidates, compared with 42% of schools in 2019, according to figures from the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC). 

Enrollment in business schools stayed at a record high in 2020, according to the Forté Foundation, a nonprofit focused on gender parity in business. Of Forté’s 52 member schools, 22 reported 40% or more women enrolled in 2020. Only 12 of its schools could make that claim five years ago, and only one school could 10 years ago. 

Historically, women’s enrollment in business school has lagged behind other graduate disciplines like medical school or law school. The large boost in female applicants in 2020 indicates encouraging progress toward gender parity. But women weren’t alone; a year of financial hardship led to an uptick in MBA applicants of both genders, which is typical during a recession. 

So does the flood of women applicants in 2020 represent a new trend? Or was it simply a product of the times—a result of economic uncertainty and MBA programs adapting to the extraordinary circumstances of a COVID world?

“It’s hard to separate the pandemic from a trend at this point,” says Elissa Sangster, Forté Foundation’s CEO. “I think that it couldn’t hurt that they had time to sit down and think about what they wanted to do with their careers, and a large group of women thought, ‘I want to invest in myself and get more education.’”

How MBA admissions reacted to COVID

The GMAC applications survey data shows that business schools took a number of actions that likely contributed to an influx of applicants. Among U.S. programs, 59% extended their deadlines, which gave candidates a larger window to consider an MBA and more time to actually complete an application. 

Meanwhile, 61% of programs allowed students to defer entry, meaning candidates could apply for MBA programs recently after finishing or while still completing their undergrad. If accepted, they could choose to work for a couple of years before starting their MBA. A GMAC study found that women are more likely than men to begin considering an MBA while still an undergraduate, suggesting that deferment options may have been especially appealing to women. 

Additionally, many schools waived admissions test requirements as well as application fees. Taken altogether, these decisions that programs made in response to COVID-19 likely gave female candidates extra incentives to apply.

Gravitating to flexible MBA programs

The 2020 GMAC survey found that men outpaced women in applying for two-year MBA programs, with 71% of programs reporting an increase in male applicants compared with 65% reporting an increase in female applicants. But the opposite dynamic was true with part-time, executive, and online MBA programs. According to those program reports, women applicants outpaced men by double-digit margins. 

Sangster notes this difference is not unusual. “Early when we were just getting started at Forté, women would come to our events and say, ‘I’m going to apply to business school and attend part-time. I’m going to try to get a promotion and I might have a baby in between all of that, if it makes sense,’” Sangster says. By pursuing an online, part-time, or executive MBA, women give themselves some flexibility. 

“We know from the literature and prior research that flexibility is very highly valued by many female candidates given the major challenges of juggling their personal life and professional life in their late twenties to early thirties,” says Rahul Choudaha, the director of research communications and industry insights at GMAC.

The future for women in MBA programs 

While it seems unlikely that women MBAs will sustain their huge application numbers from 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic may have provided schools with lessons about how to reach gender parity, such as with hybrid programs.

The prospective students survey by MBA.com found that women’s preference for hybrid programs has more than doubled since early 2018. “At least in the professional services world, the nature of work is going to be hybrid,” says Choudaha. “So, likewise, for professional credentials like an MBA, it seems very reasonable that the future is hybrid.”

The fact that so many women pursued business school despite a pandemic is noteworthy, especially considering a GMAC study found that in April 2020, 55% of women were, at a minimum, very concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their pursuit of an MBA. “It’s a very positive point that female candidates are saying, ‘I’m very concerned about COVID,’ and yet we are seeing more applications coming to business schools from female candidates,” says Choudaha. 

Sangster says she’s pleased that the pandemic didn’t discourage women from pursuing an MBA. “So many of our schools are hitting that 40% mark and heading north of it,” she says. “That’s going to change the dynamic already in business school and change the access point for women.”