Women in MBA Programs Reach Record Numbers

It’s tempting to dismiss the existence of any gender differences in the MBA application process or student life. But you don’t have to look back very far to see just how controversial the subject still is, even at elite programs such as Harvard Business School.  Will the tide finally turn now that there’s a record number of women in MBA programs?

In 2018, USC Marshall became the first major business school to reach gender parity. A record-smashing 52% of the incoming full-time MBA class was female.  According to new research from the Forté Foundation, U.S. b-schools average 39% women per MBA cohort, compared to 26% outside the US.  Of the 54 schools surveyed, 19 had 40% or more women enrolled.

In fact, just over 35% of Forté’s membership schools are ahead of the curve, hitting the group’s 2020 target for at least 40% gender equity in all of their member schools.  In 2005, only three business schools enrolled more than 35% women in MBA programs.

How the MBA admissions committee sees it

A new article in Quartz explores the surge of women in MBA programs, as explained by three MBA admissions heads.  Washington University’s Olin Business School came closest to achieving parity this year, with 49% female enrollment.

Ruthie Pyles Stiffler, assistant dean and graduate admissions director at Olin, tells Quartz that student groups like Olin Women in Business “have played a tremendous role in our ability to attract and retain top women talent.”

Affinity groups like these assure prospective MBA students that they will find a supportive community on campus. “Learning about what OWIB does at Olin for women was a really big draw,” Alex Halfpap told Quartz, noting that she felt the group was “really focused on helping Olin women grow and thrive.”

Meanwhile, admissions director Soojin Kwon at Michigan Ross School of Business considers the school’s Michigan Business Women group a draw for applicants. The group “works closely to connect with prospective students on the front end,” Kwon tells Quartz, noting that membership in Michigan Business Women has doubled in the past five years even as Ross’s class size has stayed the same. (Michigan Ross has 45% female enrollment for the MBA Class of 2021.)

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania admitted a class with 47% women this fall. Blair Mannix, director of admissions for the MBA program, says the school has a highly collaborative and welcoming culture. Wharton’s grade non-disclosure policy is just one example of how the school shuns the toxic elements of a competitive culture, Mannix tells Quartz.

The goal is to get students focused on challenging themselves instead. “We want women to take risks in coursework,” Mannix says. “We want you to take a class you might not do well in.”

Tips for women applying to business school

Now, for the $64,000 question: Are there specific tips and tactics just for women who are applying to business school?  These tips won’t apply to every female applicant. But certain demographic stereotypes persist, and having an awareness of these red flags makes good sense.

We have worked with several clients whose recommenders received calls from the admissions committee to probe on specific points.  In particular: “Is the applicant confident, will she speak up in class discussions, is she timid, etc…”  Almost all of these anecdotes have occurred with female clients.

In the application process,  women must exude comfort and confidence.  Essays, interviews, and recommendations need to indicate a comfort level with speaking out, defending points of view, and collaborating with all types of people.

An interview coach we know also had this note for women: Don’t play with your hair. Avoid fiddling with jewelry. Don’t adjust your clothing. Just focus on looking your interviewer straight in the eye and answering questions with complete focus and confidence.

Some male-dominated career paths, such as investment banking, need more women on board.  Therefore, women in MBA programs targeting finance may have an advantage over one pursuing a role in brand management.  This is true in the MBA admissions process as well as in the job search.

women in MBA programs

source: Forté Foundation data

If more women become interested in business school earlier in the pipeline, we’ll see the numbers continue to rise. Ultimately, better representation in the C-suite means more equality, which contributes to a stronger economy and, ultimately, a positive effect on society and the next generation of women.

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