Why So Few Women in B-School?

Written by Bryce Hammons, published on 2013-07-09 00:00:00


We all know there's no gender disparity at all in business schools, don't we? Bloomberg Businessweek writer Matt Symonds says take a gander at photos from promotional recruitment materials from top business schools. What you may not be able to see is a trend that some people are finding troubling: too many men and too few women. These promotional materials portray a fun, eclectic mix of men and women, equally distributed in a computer lab or a cluster of desks, or perhaps sprawled on the campus lawn soaking up the rays. They're selling you on, among other things, the idea of gender equality within the business school population. But look beyond the staged pictures and into the stark reality of deeply ingrained biases and plain facts, and you'll begin to notice a bigger, more unbalanced truth: women just aren't as strongly represented as they should be at the highest levels of the business world.

Women make up half the population of the world, and a few business schools are managing to reflect that proportion. Wharton business school, for example, as of 2013 achieves as close to parity in its student body as currently possible: female students make up 42 percent of the seats in its full-time MBA program. But that's far from the norm at other campuses around the country: MBA programs lag behind both law and medical schools, achieving only about 30 percent female enrollment each year. And even Wharton has had to work hard for years in order to debunk certain pernicious myths when it comes to women in the workplace - namely, that they're just not capable of man's work, and that they deserve to be outnumbered from the get-go.

To improve this situation, we need to find answers to three questions: What, specifically, accounts for this disparity between men and women in America's business programs? How can it be rectified? And are schools really doing everything in their power to turn the tide, both now and in the future?

Why So Few Women in B-School?

One major problem is that lots of women don't even try to get into business school. The reason has to do partly with timing: bad timing, to be exact. Schools require a minimum amount of work experience - four years at many of the country's top schools. There's also the prospect of graduating in debt, not to mention the possibility of starting a family after (or even during) one's studies. Add to this mountain of obstacles the extra mile women have to go at these male-dominated schools, plus a distinct lack of female mentors and lower pay upon graduation, and you end up with entry barriers for women that men don't have to worry about.

In Contention

So b-school attendance is clearly skewed toward the male end of the spectrum. This article from Forbes in April, 2010, takes a hard stance against perceived lackadaisical efforts by business schools nationwide to entice female students to pursue MBAs. While a number of outreach initiatives are being implemented by schools, it's not enough, according to writers Selena Rezvani and Sandie Taylor. They highlight the need for gender-specific leadership training in order to prepare female graduate students for the questions and issues they may face once they're enrolled. In the typical school setting, many times it's difficult-to-nearly-impossible to find answers for their issues. Female students may feel less welcome and have trouble getting equal time for their points or ideas. Some women may graduate without knowing how they can fit into the real business world.

Where Are All the Female Professors?

Another major fail from the female point of view is the lack of role models or mentors in business school. The shortage of female students in MBA programs mirrors a noticeable paucity of women who have reached the upper echelons of academia and made full professor. Only one out of five female business school professors working today are full professors, according to a 2010-11 salary survey by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). True, these figures are trending upwards: female b-school faculty increased from 23.6 of total faculty in 2001-2002 to 29 percent by mid-2011, according to Businessweek. But while the basic numbers may be increasing, John Fernandes, AACSB's president, sees a problem with the path to promotion that means the increase may not be fast enough to appease both the schools and society as a whole.

Pay Inequality

In addition, there is the issue of pay inequality after graduation - a rather important topic. In many cases, we're talking about massive discrepancies. Female MBA grads are paid an average of 93 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. At Stanford, for instance, female MBA grads earn a paltry 79 cents on the dollar, relative to male grads. A woman contemplating these post-MBA prospects may find herself wondering if it's really worth it.

What Can Be Done to Improve Female Enrollment?

It's imperative, as Rezvani and Taylor suggest, that business schools provide a curriculum that prepares women for leadership roles, risk-taking, and other high-level skills and attitudes conducive to upward mobility. Expanded mentorship programs, more inclusive campus events, and women-oriented information sessions can only help. Hiring more female academics won't hurt, either, according to Symonds. Schools and organizations around the world are taking it upon themselves to promote a more balanced business-school culture. Forte Foundation and MBA Women International are two that provide resources and assistance - scholarships, podcasts, articles, conferences, job fairs, online and on-campus opportunities, and more - for women looking to learn more about reaching their potential in business-related fields.

US News & World Report says that efforts are underway to move toward a more equal footing for women within the business school arena. Kellogg School of Management hosts the Women's Leadership Workshop to attract high-level women; Women Connect, an annual recruiting event held by Columbia Business School, brings prospective students to campus to meet current students, faculty, and alumni; and, Duke's Fuqua School of Business hosts the Duke MBA Weekend for Women to examine what it means to be a woman in our current business climate.

Additional Thoughts

So the way ahead is not totally dark, and the tide is turning. The Globe and Mail reports on a U.S. Graduate Management Admission Council report in 2012 highlighting gains made by women in business schools around the world. Women accounted for a record-setting 41.4 percent of global applicants for the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), up from 34.4 percent two decades ago. Furthermore, a large proportion of female test-takers hailed from East Asia and Eastern Europe - 57 and 53 percent, respectively. Advances are being made, slowly but surely.

Still, much is left to be done. For some insightful articles on the subject, try this piece by Daria Burke, "What Business Schools Must Do to Put More Women in the C-Suite," and this New York Times article, "Closing the Gender Gap at Business School." Meanwhile, as always, the times are changing. Some observers may wish for more, sooner - but the one certainty is that change is coming, at whatever speed. And right now? What's really needed is for schools and forward-thinking corporations to band together and thereby raise the tempo of change: to think up creative solutions to the gender disparity issue in our business schools and move toward a brighter, more equitable society with an ever-expanding pool of male - and female - talent to push us all forward to new heights. What's not to like about that?