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What Gender Imbalance? Serving Women in MBA Programs

As we at Eduvantis consider the many factors creating a changing market for management education, we wanted to take a deeper look at practices in recruiting and serving women in MBA programs. Women now make up close to 40 percent of global GMAT test-takers intending to obtain the MBA, and more than 40 percent of MBA degree recipients at U.S. institutions; they are now mainstream members of the prospective student market. And yet the media regularly reports on the difficulties top-ranked business schools face in recruiting women.

So how daunting are the challenges in attracting and serving women MBA students?  Not daunting at all, according to a number of women business school leaders who are members of the Women in Management Education group affiliated with the AACSB. In a small-scale survey (download our findings) and a session discussion, female deans and administrators described a gender-balanced, congenial and supportive environment for women at their institutions.

Participating women business school leaders in our study:

  • Do not believe that their schools have a recruitment challenge bringing women into their MBA programs.
  • Are confident about the positive experience that they’re providing women MBA students, citing as key factors the involvement of women faculty and women leaders, and the provision of flexible program options to enable work-life balance.
  • Are so confident, in fact, that they believe that business schools can and should educate industry on creating effective environments for women.

To put these findings in context, it should be noted that more than half of participating deans and administrators lead schools where the MBA enrollment is more than 40 percent female. (The average at the top twenty ranked U.S. News and World Report MBA programs is 33 percent.) Nearly two-thirds of respondents represent public institutions conferring degrees to the Masters level, more likely to be members of the solid “mid-market” than of the most selective echelon of schools housed in Research I universities. For these schools, in which robust populations of women students have been in place some time, meeting their needs appears to be built into the institutional offer; few of the responding schools had distinct recruitment initiatives or special academic or co-curricular offerings aimed at women.

And if there is a “talent drain” in which women opt out or fail to thrive in business careers – a la Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and a recent survey of Harvard Business School alumni– the downward path doesn’t start in MBA programs, or so report our respondents. HBS alumnae rated prioritizing family over work, and the practice of taking leaves or reducing work hours, as the most prevalent factors “holding women back from advancing in their careers.” Business schools represented in our study have adapted to the challenging work-family equation with flexible programming that puts timing and delivery choices in the hands of students.  Equally important are cultural norms in place at these business schools – significant numbers of senior women leaders, mentors, and peers, and an ongoing emphasis put on serving women – that directly address the inhospitable environment factors that the HBS alumnae list as critical inhibitors to women’s success. In fact, women business school leaders admitted that that they may need to better prepare women graduates for the corporate chill. Said one dean, “We may need to pull women MBA students aside and say, ‘we’ve treated you as equals here, but this may not be as true in the real work world. Be prepared!’”

Our preliminary conclusion? Business schools (and companies) seeking to improve their appeal to women might want to solicit advice from less “elite” schools where gender balance has become the norm.