By Andrea Newell (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
After decades of stagnant female enrollment in graduate business schools, The Financial Times reports that recently the numbers have begun to climb. Female enrollment is currently at an average of 37 percent, up from 33 percent five years ago and 30 percent 10 years ago. And it’s not just a U.S. phenomenon—top European business schools are reporting higher female enrollment as well.
While these numbers are still low, they can be seen as a success – the rise in enrollment follows a decade of serious efforts by non-profits, corporations, and universities to improve gender diversity at the MBA level.
But even still, there is a long way to go. Since an MBA can open many doors in the business world, why aren’t more women pursuing them? What is being done to improve these numbers?
The Missing Female MBAs – Resolving a Lingering Issue
In 2000, spurred by continuing low numbers of female MBA graduates, Catalyst and the University of Michigan Business School collaborated on Women and the MBA: Gateway to Opportunity, a report studying the experience of women in graduate business schools and their career trajectories. While 95% of women reported being satisfied with their MBA education, they cited many issues, including a lack of female role models, incompatible work/life balance for careers in business, a lack of confidence in math skills, very little encouragement by employers, the aggressive, competitive culture of business schools and—by extension—the business world, an inability to relate to individuals in case studies, and very few opportunities to interact with female faculty.
Over the past decade, top business schools have dedicated a lot of effort toward specifically recruiting women. One obstacle to graduate business school enrollment is the work experience requirement that many other graduate degrees do not have. This puts MBA pursuit squarely in the timeframe during which many women are starting a family. Some schools, like Harvard, have shortened this work experience requirement to as little as two years to attract women, as well as a younger student base. Other schools have begun offering part-time, online and self-paced schedules, as well as their full-time program, to accommodate women with family obligations.
Additionally, in response to the Catalyst/University of Michigan study, several major corporations and top business schools have come together to form The Forté Foundation, “a powerful change agent in educating and directing talented women toward leadership roles in business.” Since women comprise nearly half of the current workforce, corporations and business schools alike realized that intelligent, high-achieving women were pursuing other disciplines such as law or medicine. The Forte Foundation works to encourage women to enroll in MBA programs.
Mentoring and recruiting begin during undergraduate studies to educate women on the benefits of pursuing an MBA and to refute incorrect assumptions highlighted by the study. According to the report, many women end up leaving their careers due to a lack of flexibility for family. Women were declining to pursue an MBA because they believed it could only lead to careers in finance or consulting. Information sessions and Forte Foundation programming now stress the versatility of an MBA not only in various business careers, but in the nonprofit sector as well.
Looking Forward: What Do Enrollment Increases Mean?
Kathryn Blanchflower, PR Assistant at Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth, says, “Women have uniquely different skill sets from their male counterparts and must be acknowledged as such. Addressing the enrollment disparity between the sexes requires the acknowledgment of a paradox: There is a clear need to offer equal opportunities to both genders, while also recognizing essential differences.”
Now that more women are pursuing MBAs, what does that mean for the future of our global workforce? We have previously reported on the lack of women on corporate boards and in the executive suite, so perhaps with more women achieving MBAs those numbers will increase. Study after study shows that a balanced executive suite only benefits companies, and business schools have obviously realized that enrolling more women is essential to creating the most representative pool of qualified candidates for upper level management positions in any industry or sector. Now that business schools are bending over backwards to attract women of all ages and accommodate mothers, will the business world follow suit?
Blanchflower says, “Women tend to peak 10 years later in their working life, and close to half take time out for family. It is in the best interest of businesses to accommodate women’s needs, ensure that the corporate environment is a welcoming one, and strive to place women in positions of power and leadership.”
We have also reported on the motherhood penalty or maternal wall that is driving women from the workforce entirely. After experiencing the flexibility of the graduate school schedule, will these new women leaders carry that over into the workplace? Will our new business model show more flex-time, part-time positions, family sabbaticals, telecommuting and other innovative solutions to support and retain women with families? Only time will tell.