Why More Women Go to Law or Med Schools

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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