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What Women Want? Maybe Not MBAs

In higher education, women outnumber men on most fronts. In 2015, women earned 57% of bachelor’s degrees and 60% of graduate degrees in the United States. In specialized business master’s programs — degrees like the Master of Marketing, Master of Accounting, and Master in Management that have exploded in recent years — women globally represent 52% of all degree seekers.

But even as they have achieved parity or better in these areas, women have been stuck at around 40% enrollment in full-time MBA programs, in the U.S. and globally, for the last several years. Indeed, even as MBA parity seemed finally within reach, it has eluded women’s grasp. In 2016, 27 of the Financial Times’ top 100 global schools boasted female enrollment of more than 40% (including nine schools with more than 45%) — double the number from the year before. Yet in a report released today (March 8), the Graduate Management Admission Council finds that only 37% of MBA students globally are women.

“Everyone knows there’s a gap there, but what’s interesting is, when it comes to other business master’s programs, we don’t see that gap,” says Betty Su, GMAC chief marketing officer, noting that online and part-time MBA programs also are often more appealing to women candidates, in part because of their flexibility. “So you really need to go in deeper and understand those underlying motivations in terms of what is actually differentiating women from men in their decision-making process, and why the MBA gap persists.

“Our key finding, in a nutshell, comes down to the fact that women are a lot more pragmatic when it comes to looking at how they want to advance their careers and how they look at business education.”

‘PHENOMENAL PROGRESS,’ BUT FINANCIAL CONCERNS PREDOMINATE

The GMAC report, What Women Want: A Blueprint for Change in Business Educationis based on insights from GMAC’s Global Graduate Management Education Candidate Segmentation Study conducted in 2016, which surveyed 5,900 female and male B-school applicants representing 15 countries worldwide. The new report shows that despite gains in other areas, parity in full-time MBA programs remains an unattained goal.

Betty Su, GMAC chief marketing officer

“Women have made phenomenal progress in attaining business master’s degrees, yet they have not caught up with men in the share of MBAs earned,” Sangeet Chowfla, president and CEO of GMAC, said in a news release accompanying the new report. “Our extensive global segmentation research and market intelligence looked at several important underlying factors that contribute to this growing participation of women in business master’s and lack of parity in MBAs, with financial concerns being the number one issue cited by female applicants.”

Financial concern is a significant barrier for women, the top reason globally (29%) that female applicants have not yet accepted their admissions offer to graduate business school. The greatest gender difference on this question was seen in the U.S., where more than a third (38%) of female respondents cited money concerns in delaying acceptance of their admissions offer, compared with 20% of male respondents.

Overall, in the U.S. 30% of female applicants cite obtaining funds as their biggest challenge, versus only 9% of male applicants. That’s a huge gap, Su acknowledges to Poets&Quants. “As women are looking at investments like this, they are looking for reassurance in terms of the return on investment,” she says.

DISCONNECT: MBA VALUED, BUT LESSER DEGREES SOUGHT

GMAC’s new report seems to indicate certain advantages for women when it comes to the application journey. They are less intimidated by standardized testing than their male peers, and globally, they are much more likely to say they like to continuously discover new things. In the U.S., women are less likely than men to say that the GMAT is too difficult, while in India and China, women are more likely than men to think that submitting exam scores strengthens their applications. Even on the financial side, obtaining funds to pay for school is a bigger challenge for men than for women in both India (8% Indian women versus 14% Indian men) and China (9% Chinese women versus 11% Chinese men).

Moreover, as Su says, women are more pragmatic and outcomes-focused overall in their approach to pursuing a business degree, which at least partly accounts for a preference for other master’s degree options: They are more likely than men, GMAC found, to apply to a specific school because it offers flexible program formats and its graduates get better job opportunities. Especially in Western countries, where the greatest share of women who fall into the Balanced Careerist and Socioeconomic Climber segments are found, women are more likely than men to be motivated by a desire to advance more quickly and earn more money. In that case, an MBA might not be their first choice.

Yet the MBA is still viewed as relevant and valued by women, GMAC found — in fact, women are more likely than men to hold the MBA degree in high regard. So why the disconnect?

“Some of the structures the traditional two-year MBA program aren’t as conducive to some of the things that they are looking for,” Su says. “To me, one of the more surprising factors is that they still see the MBA as the more valuable degree, because while they view MBAs as valuable, the reality is, when it comes to fitting it into their lives and how they want to achieve their goals, they’re looking for a couple of other factors: convenience, and financing.

“What we basically found is that women, not only are they planners who plan the next step in their careers earlier than males, but they’re really looking for what is the most convenient time for them,” Su says. “They’re also looking for more flexible program options that can fit into their lives. As a result of that, a lot of the data that we saw was that they were more likely to consider — even on the MBA format — more part-time, flexible, online, blended programs. And that takes on the second point, which is that obtaining funds and financing is the number-one challenge for women.”