Why More Women Go to Law or Med Schools

by John A. Byrne on

For the first time ever, more American women have master’s degrees or higher than men. Among adults ages 25 and older, 10.6 million U.S. women have master’s degrees or higher, compared to 10.5 million men, according to new figures from the Census Bureau.

But when it comes to MBAs, it’s still the same old story. Men enrolled in full-time MBA programs greatly outnumber women—often three to one. At the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, for example, only 27.7% of the full-time MBAs are women. At UNC’s law, medicine and education schools, however, more than half the students are female. A similar pattern holds true across all the top 25 universities (see table comparing enrollments in business, law, medicine and education schools on next page.)

Will business schools ever catch up with the law and medical schools? Not in Elissa Sangster’s lifetime. Sangster is executive director of the Forte Foundation, a non-profit group founded ten years ago to encourage more women to pursue the MBA degree.  When the group was founded ten years ago, women generally made up 25% of the full-time students at business schools—roughly half that of law and medicine.

“The good story is we’ve seen 12 to 13 of the schools start pooling above the 35 percent mark, and a couple of other schools pop into that group and pop back out,” she says. “Until the economy took its toll, we were getting a 33% average among the 36 business schools that are members of the Forte Foundation. But when the economy is tough, women are a lot less willing to make the sacrifice to go to business school. They often chose local and regional MBA programs because life issues keep them from making the choice to uproot themselves and their families.”

Some of the gains, moreover, have come as a result of more international students. A recent survey by Forte, for example, discovered that China or India account for the largest number of international women in 13 of 14 Forté member schools.

Bottom line: Sangster says she has pretty much given up hope that female enrollment at business schools will ever equal the numbers at law or medical schools.

“I would just like to see us get to 40 percent,” she says. “I’d like to see the day when a school puts together teams of MBAs and they just don’t have one woman. It’s been a decade, and we’ve seen it move a few points. But I don’t think we’ll get to 50 percent.”

Sangster says you can trace the reasons back to the Catalyst study a decade ago that led to the founding of the Forte Foundation. That study largely found that women had fewer role models in business and, therefore, were less aware of the career opportunities in business than other fields. It also showed the need for more networking and coaching—findings that were recently reinforced in a new study released in April by McKinsey & Co. and published in The Wall Street Journal. “Here we are a decade later talking about the same thing,” sighs Sangster.

Among other things, the McKinsey study identified what it called “structural obstacles” that held women back in business. “Women in our survey cited familiar factors that they find discouraging: Lack of access to informal networks where they can make important connections, a lack of female role models higher up in the organization, and a lack of sponsors to provide opportunities, which many male colleagues have,” the McKinsey study found.

It can’t help that women still fail to advance as quickly as men in most corporations, either. The McKinsey study noted that “corporate America has a “leaky” talent pipeline.” At each transition up the management ranks, more women are left behind. According to Sylvia Hewlett, founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, women represent 53% of new hires. Catalyst estimates that at the very first step in career advancement—when individual contributors are promoted to managers—the number drops to 37%. Climbing higher, only 26% of vice presidents and senior executives are female and only 14% of the executive committee, on average, are women. “At this point women are doubly handicapped because, as our research of the largest U.S. corporations shows, 62% are in staff jobs that rarely lead to a CEO role,” McKinsey said. “In contrast, 65% of men on executive committees hold line jobs.) This helps explain why the number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies appears stuck at 2-3%.”

“The McKinsey study,” says Sangster, “very much mirrors what the Catalyst study showed long ago. For young women, there is a lot of confusion about what a career path in business really means,” she adds. “Often, we’re talking about a business career to an audience that doesn’t even know the terminology. For a liberal arts or engineering student, it may not even interest them.

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  • 1st year

    I’m noticing an interesting trend on PoetsandQuants. It seems like every week there’s a new article concerning women or minorities and business school. I’m not sure why these types of articles are chosen for the site so frequently. Surely there must be other news that can be discussed.

  • morgaine

    Perhaps they’re trying to convince women to consider business school.

  • none

    Look at those education %’s. I hope there’s a similar push (and associated resources) to get men to enroll in Education degrees. It would be fantastic to have more male role models in front of kids at an early age.

  • Hantum

    1st year,

    I think we will continue to see these types of articles during the MBA application off-season.

  • Arthur Featherstonehaugh Dullsworthy

    These quotes from Sangster seem equally applicable to both men and women in their late teens or early twenties:

    1) “For young women, there is a lot of confusion about what a career path in business really means…Often, we’re talking about a business career to an audience that doesn’t even know the terminology. For a liberal arts or engineering student, it may not even interest them.”

    2) “And when you say, ‘my child is a doctor, a lawyer, or a nurse,’ everyone knows what she does. It has status. When you are going against the odds to pursue a career in business, there may not be much support for it. People around you might not understand what consumer marketing is or what investment banking it. That’s a much bigger hurdle than going to law school.”

    3) “A lot of kids go to law or med school because they can go straight through out of undergrad. It’s a choice that is easy if you’re not thinking you want to get a job or if you are a liberal arts major because so many people will tell you to get a law degree.”

    Again, how is this more applicable to men than to women? My father was a doctor. I got an undergrad degree in philosophy and classics. Do you think I had a clue? I didn’t know what a business career meant. I was confused and ignorant of the terms. I didn’t know anything about marketing or investment banking. I still don’t believe in consulting as a meaningful activity. I chose to pursue the least time consuming form of “professional education” available. Law, although everyone was pushing it, was one year too many. How doesn’t all of this apply to me (and several of my friends of my undergrad friends) more than it does to the women Sangster’s talking about?

    I want to present an hypothesis. Women pursue further education to find spouses. The MRS degree. The med schools and law schools are considered happy hunting grounds where the women don’t feel their presence makes them less attractive to a potential mate (see the huge numbers of lawyers and doctors marrying each other in the weddings and engagements section of the Times). Women, for whatever reasons, don’t feel that they’d be as desirable with an MBA. Personally, I prefer hot trauma nurses to MBAs, lawyers, and doctors, but tastes may vary. And it is surely true that the world needs nurses more than it needs MBAs and lawyers. Probably more than it needs more doctors.

  • Johnnie Welker

    Honestly, these articles talking how women are not at the same level with men, are just bogus. It gets to a point where you must ask, what’s next?

    Women make up 60% of undergraduates
    Women graduate more people with advanced degrees.

    So, it is the world’s (particularly men) fault that they are not interested in B-School. Give it a break now…

    It is just sickening now

  • http://www.Thunderbird.edu Samantha

    Thunderbird’s student body is 46% female.

  • Clint

    I’ve always wondered how the nobel goal of “equal opportunity” morphed into a goal of “equal participation.”

    If the real goal is equal opportunity for all candidates, then there are more relevant metrics than simply showing percentage of a group out of a total population.

    I don’t believe its “bad” to want equal participation in b-school, or any other profession for that matter, but once the barriers are broken down, why the social engineering push? and why is it one-directional?

    Where are the articles indicating we need more men in education? More caucasians in nursing school?

    At some point the “we need more (group)” argument begins to come off as a “we need less (group)” argument. The fact that these two arguments are logically equivalent, but not morally equivalent should give us pause.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/msshona/ Rishona Campbell

    Wow, these comments sound pretty jaded if you ask me! But anyway, I do agree that a big part of the problem is with the MBA degree itself; the fact that it is not really well-defined. The program and the degree are very ego-driven; at least that is what the stereotype is. I personally feel that you don’t need to be a Type ‘A’ personality to benefit from MBA studies. But since the degree is not closely aligned to any one profession (or even any one type of profession), those who are Type ‘A’ personalities seem to get more bang for the buck for their MBAs.

  • Johnnie Welker

    @ Rishonda, you know what you just said apply to both men and women indistinctly. Even though I don’t agree with essence with what you said, both men and women find themselves in the same conundrum concerning the MBA.

    It is not a gender thing, and that’s my problem with all these articles. It has nothing to do with it.

  • Meowmeowmeowmix

    If women don’t want to do business or math or science, why should we care, it’s their personal decision. Feminists and women’s lobbying ground should shut up and get loss, I’m so sick of hearing about them.

  • Paramia

    interestingly, most (if not all) the admission directors at the top b schools are women!! I wish I can switch my gender to be a female when applying then after admitted I can back to the default status :)))

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