Will top MBA programs ever have classes that are 50% women?

October 01, 2014 | by Matt Symonds

Matt Symonds published an online article on this topic for Bloomberg Businessweek on August 29, 2014. For a link to the complete article, click here. 

New MBA students starting at Harvard Business School this fall will find more women in their ranks than ever before.  With women representing 41% of the HBS class of 2016, this is marginally higher than the North American business school average of 37% women. While the stats at HBS are encouraging, the truth is that it will still be difficult to reach full gender equality at top MBA programs in the near future.

Approximately fifteen years ago, many of the top U.S. business schools were comprised of MBA classes that were around only 30 percent female. At some schools, like the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, only around 20% of MBA students were women and NYU Stern was the only elite program to enroll more than 40 percent women MBAs. The times have changed and over the last three years HBS has managed to keep its share of new women MBAs above 40 percent while last year Wharton admitted 42% percent women into its MBA program.

While the current share of women in business schools compares favorably to the low percentage of women in senior executive roles, there is still a lot to be done. While governments struggle with legislation and incentives to increase the representation of women in senior positions, business schools must encourage more women to pursue an MBA and to have a stronger presence in the boardroom as well as in their MBA classrooms.

At a time when Harvard recently celebrated 50 years of women in its MBA program, a question to ask is what would it take for women to represent 50 percent of its MBA students there or at other prominent schools?

Efforts like targeted outreach, networking with alumni, positive role models, and corporate support all play a role. Schools can expect differences from different regions of the world. Although women comprise 43 percent of GMAT test-takers across the world, in China and Russia women are in the majority. However women GMAT test-takers represent only 38 percent in the U.S., about 33 percent in Latin America and Western Europe, and only 27 percent in India.

But these efforts are undermined by an ongoing gender wage gap in which women often earn 15 to 20 fewer cents per dollar than their male counterparts upon graduating from b-school. This can partly be explained by the difference in the sectors women go into after their MBA.

Solving gender inequality later on in women’s careers could be a way to improve the pipeline into MBA programs.  According to Bernard Garrette, associate dean of the MBA program at France’s HEC Paris, “Business schools need to help women to reach the same positions and compensation as men, irrespective of the number of female students in the MBA program.” If women with MBAs achieve the same seniority and compensation as men, says Garrette, we may see them enter business programs in greater numbers.

Garrette further highlights that until this wage gap goes away, schools will be penalized in MBA rankings that attribute significant weight to post-MBA salaries. If HBS admitted an incoming class with 50% women in 2015, the program would be punished by some rankings. For example, although the Financial Times’ ranking model awards points to programs for the percentage of female students in their full-time MBA program, this factor contributes only 2% to the ranking, while salary outcomes are weighted much more heavily. Other MBA rankings, such as in Bloomberg Businessweek, do not factor in salary.

Can we expect to see a top business school report an incoming class with 50 percent women by 2020? We can hope so, but it will take a widespread effort and creative thinking to remove the wage gap to get there.

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