Wharton Admits Most Women Ever

Nearly 45% of the incoming class at Wharton this fall will be composed of women, according to the school’s deputy director of MBA admissions. The percentage of women in the class reflects a new record for Wharton, which has already had the highest number of women in any institution ranked in the top 25 of U.S. business schools.

The new number is five full percentage points up from the 39.7% of women admitted to Wharton last fall. As a result, the number of women enrolled in the new fall class will increase by 12.5% in a single year. The change brings the University of Pennsylvania’s business school much closer to the female enrollment numbers of its law and medical schools. Some 47.6% of the students at Penn’s law school are women, while 49.3% of the students at Penn’s medical school are female. That gap is much wider at nearly every other top university, according to a recent analysis by Poets&Quants.

Ankur Kumar, Wharton’s deputy director of admissions, says the increase is due to a conscious effort by the school to recruit and welcome more female applicants. Among other things, Wharton has been sponsoring special on-campus visiting days for women and information sessions at all-female colleges. “There are always misperceptions about business school that women have, and these help bust those myths,” Kumar told The Wall Street Journal.

“It’s a huge milestone for us and for our peers,” Kumar added in an interview with the university student newspaper. “Our efforts have helped change the game for them as well, which is fantastic. Three years ago, we had the initial watershed moment,” Kumar said, referring to the first time the school hit the 40 percent mark. “This year, it’s been game-changing again.”

The new record at Wharton follows last week’s news that Harvard Business School accepted a record number of women for its incoming fall class. At Harvard, women will account for 39% of the class, up three percentage points from 36% for the past two years. It’s the highest percentage of women ever to enter Harvard. The change translates into an 8.3% increase in female MBA candidates in one year. In 1995, only 28% of the class was female, and in 1975, just 11% of the class was composed of women.

Harvard also has been actively seeking to boost its enrollment of highly qualified women, notes Sanford Kreisberg, president of HBSGuru, an MBA admissions consultant. He says that Deirdre Leopold, director of admissions and financial aid at HBS, has helped in the past year to organize SWAT teams of current HBS women to spread the word about Harvard and the value of MBA training at schools such as Wellesley, Smith and Barnard as part of a plan to lay the groundwork for admitting more women. “Now that Wharton has thrown down the ‘garter,’ as it were, the speculation is that the next shoe to drop will be at HBS—and it may have a very high heel,” says Kreisberg.

The significant increases at both Wharton and Harvard come after the Great Recession caused declines in female enrollment at a number of top business schools. The class data released by Harvard and Wharton is preliminary and subject to some change. Most business schools, including Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, wait until September to officially publish the demographic profiles of their incoming classes. Last year, however, the percentage of women in Stanford’s incoming class rose to 39% from 36% a year earlier.

“Until the economy took its toll, we were getting a 33% average among the 36 business schools that are members of the Forte Foundation,” says Elissa Sangster, Forte’s executive director. The Forte Foundation, a non-profit group founded ten years ago to encourage more women to pursue the MBA degree, keeps tabs on female enrollment. “But when the economy is tough, women are a lot less willing (than men) 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.”

An improving economy, believes Sangster, brings more highly qualified women into the MBA applicant pool. But the paucity of women at top schools and their performance in class also has been getting more attention of late. A recent study by second-year women at Harvard Business School, for example, discovered that proportionally more men than women receive academic honors at HBS. Though women accounted for 36% of Harvard’s Class of 2009, for example, only 11% of the school’s Baker Scholars were female. That honor is given to students who are in the top 5% of HBS’ graduating class.

The study also found “a similarly marked academic gender gap” at eight unidentified peer business schools. “However, there is little to no awareness of the issue at other schools, especially among students,” the study said. “Women’s groups at other schools tend to focus almost exclusively on career oriented efforts or increasing the percentage of women in the student body.” Some of those peer schools have 20-plus percentage point gaps between the percentage of female students and the number of women receiving academic honors.

Wharton and Harvard are now in the leadership spots for having the largest percentage of women in their incoming classes. The top 25 business schools with the lowest percentage? Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, where just 24.9% of the full-time MBA students are women. Also on the low end are Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business 26.7%), North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School (27.7%, Emory’s Goizueta School of Business (28.2%), and Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business (28.6%).



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