The MBA Gender Gap At Columbia

A Columbia Business School study reports on climate of being a woman in the full-time MBA program.

A Columbia Business School study reports on climate of being a woman in the full-time MBA program.


After widespread publicity over an academic gender gap at Harvard Business School, Columbia Business School apparently decided to take a look at how women were doing in its MBA program. The answer: Female MBAs at the prestige New York City school are still largely underperforming men in the classroom, but the gap between them and their female counterparts is closing.

The two-year study was conducted by more than 30 largely female MBA students and six faculty members examining gender roles and performance within Columbia’s full-time MBA program. It included 1,100 MBA candidates, or 74% of the total enrolled number of students, and compared males and females in four broad categories: admissions, community, academics, and careers.

The study found that despite the fact that an increasing number of business schools have reported record amounts of women in their programs in recent years (including Columbia at 36%), the applicant pool for qualified women remains relatively small. The report claims that out of the more than 80,000 female GMAT takers in 2013, just over 2,000 have the GMAT scores, work experience, and interests needed for acceptance into top full-time MBA programs.

This likely explains the dramatic difference in GMAT scores for women (707) and men (726) enrolled in Columbia’s full-time MBA program. It also likely explains the difference in admissions rates for men and women, which is higher for females. The study revealed that women came into the program with higher undergraduate GPAs than men (3.6 vs. 3.5). Yet, women at Columbia do not achieve grades in MBA courses that are as high as those attained by the men.


At Columbia, grades are broken down into H (Honors), HP (High Pass), P (Pass), LP (Low Pass), and F (Fail). When surveyed on which parts of the MBA experience assumes greater importance among career, academic, social life, and clubs, women actually came in highest for academics. That is, 25% of women considered academics to be a priority vs. 23% of men. Nevertheless, for the class of 2014, 40.3% of males earned the highest Honors grades in technical courses while only 21.9% of females achieved an H grade. The gap was less dramatic for the class of 2015 in which 34.5% of males earned an H and 24% of women.

What’s behind the results? For one thing, work experience.  Twice as many men have financial backgrounds as women at Columbia, though females who hail from finance are doing just fine,  according to Katherine Phillips, senior vice dean and faculty lead on the study. Phillips believes that more women can achieve higher grades if the learning environment changed so that every person has an equal chance of being successful.

That was also true at Harvard Business School, where men routinely outperformed women for the highest grades several years ago. The school, however, made faculty more aware of the disparity, installed software to better monitor cold calls and grade distributions in courses and counseled women to raise their hands in class so they would get more air time. The result: In recent years, women have closed the academic gender gap at HBS.

Columbia says it creates learning teams of six individuals in each course. If the amount of women in the program is 36%, there will most likely be two women on each team. “The teams complete homework assignments together with a lot of constraints,” Phillips says. “There are time constraints and pressures to perform well so it might lead to a couple people taking over and it can short-circuit the learning process. How do we restructure the teams and classrooms and assignments so everyone has the best learning situation.”


The study also found that women at Columbia drastically lag in confidence and assertiveness compared to the male MBAs. The researchers measured confidence by asking questions about their comfort in asking for clarification from professors and learning teams as well as their comfort with learning teams grappling with quantitative assignments. Some 22% of women and 46% of men said they had a high level of confidence in dealing with these issues, while 30% of women and 11% of men fell in the low confidence category.

Assertiveness was measured by students’ level of  comfort in standing their ground during a heated debate and their willingness to engage in confrontation. About 47% of men were found to be in the high assertiveness category, but only 28% of the women.

The other large differences found between men and women came in the career portion of the study. Women placed more importance on work/life balance in a career than men. The guys, on the other hand, placed more importance on growth and opportunity. In the next five to 10 years, 59% of women said they planned on taking time off, vs. 48% of the men. Perhaps more alarming is the gap in expectations: Women expected to make somewhere in between $125,000 to $149,999 after getting their MBA degrees, while men fell in the $150,000 to $199,999 category.

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