MBA Programs Edging Closer To Gender Parity

Only half a dozen years ago, Elissa Sangster had pretty much given up hope that female enrollment in MBA programs would ever equal the much higher numbers at law and medical schools during her lifetime. The executive director of the Forté Foundation then said she would like to see MBA programs get to the 40% level.

“I’d like to see the day when a school puts together teams of MBAs and they just don’t have one woman,” she told Poets&Quants in an interview in 2011. “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.”

Fast forward to this year’s incoming classes at leading business schools and it’s quite a different story. A newly released study out today (Nov. 30) by Forté has found that women’s enrollment at Forté member schools has steadily gained each year. This fall, 17 schools had 40% or more women enrolled, up from only two schools that reached this milestone in the fall of 2013. Another 26 schools report 35% or more women enrolled, more than double from 12 schools in 2013. Overall, women made up an average 37.4% of this fall’s incoming MBA classes at Forté member schools, up four percentage points from 33.4% five years ago in the fall of 2013.


Elissa Sangster, executive director of the Forte Foundation

The progress achieved in recent years has now led Sangster to expect that at least one leading school will reach gender parity within three years by 2020. “A lot of deadlines have been set on 2020, and I am just hopeful there is a school out there that will hit that mark. We are on a positive trend, and I don’t see that turning. This progress demonstrates that gender parity is not a pipe dream,” says Sangster, who joked that her more pessimistic prediction six years ago occurred because she had done her earlier interview on two hours of sleep.

In many cases, the increased numbers of women streaming into MBA programs is changing the on-campus dynamic. “Forty percent is a place where women are no longer feeling like the minority,” adds Sangster. “It’s a welcoming environment versus 25%. Even if we are not at 50% yet, we’re getting close. There is a race to get there. Wharton and a few other schools have taken a leadership position and the others at the top have followed. Schools are taking it very seriously and they want to see this milestone of gender parity reached.”

Much of the progress in encouraging more women to enroll in MBA programs has been made at the leading business schools. In the past five years, for example, every single Top Ten MBA program can today boast that they have more women in classrooms than ever before. In many cases, the gains have been stunning. At Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, women make up 44% of this year’s entering class, up 11 percentage points or 33% higher than the 33% in the Class of 2014. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, under the leadership of a female dean, has grown its enrollment of women by ten percentage points in the same timeframe, to 42% this year from 34%. At UC-Berkeley’s Haas School, women composed 40% of this fall’s new MBA class, up nine percentage points from 31% five years ago (see table below).


Many other schools also have now reached or exceeded the 40% level. They include the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business (43%), the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management (41%), the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business (40%), Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School (40%), and Oxford’s Said Business School (40%). Many more MBA programs are just below that level, including Washington University’s Olin School (39%) and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business (38%).

Schools have lured more women into their programs with generous scholarship support, more active recruitment efforts by admissions staffers, female alumni and students, and mentorship programs for women once on campus. A number of schools, including Harvard, have reached out to female undergraduates in hopes of increasing the pipeline of women to MBA programs years later. And students at many schools have formed groups of male allies to promote inclusion and create a more welcoming atmosphere. Sangster notes that there are now 24 chapters of male allies at Forté’s 51 member schools, up from none five years ago. “There are so many men who want to get this right,” she says. “The whole point is to have an awkward conversation and not be the bystander who walks away when they saw something suspicious happening.”

The progress reported by some of the big brand schools, however, has often come at the expense of many other schools as the elites have dipped deeper into the overall MBA applicant pool to increase women enrollment. Deans privately acknowledge that the percentage of women in their applicant pools can trail their enrollment numbers by five or more percentage points. Several prominent schools with highly ranked MBA programs have seen their women numbers drop, including Vanderbilt University’s Owen School (26%), Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management (27%), and Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School (27%).

  • abc

    The evidence of slipping standards is several-fold:
    1. I’m a second-year student at one of the schools heralded in this article and it’s abundantly obvious, if you spend enough time in the classroom, that the averages are different. I’ve also talked to several female friends/classmates and they all acknowledge that it’s easier for women to get in than men. Some people will deny it, but I’d estimate the large majority of women would acknowledge it – especially if they themselves would’ve gotten in on merit alone. Also worth pointing out that, at least among my close female friends who I’ve talked to in-depth about it, they all dislike the affirmative action policy because it understandably makes them question whether they too were “diversity admits” (they’re not). Not to mention the fact that it simply furthers the negative stereotypes that they now need to overcome even though they got in on merit alone.
    2. The class resume book is open to all students. If a student does well enough on the GMAT (say, 740+), she/he will generally put it on her/his resume. Scrolling through the resume book, without exaggeration over 90% of the people who put the GMAT on their resume are men. Now someone in denial might say “Well, what if men are simply more likely to put their GMAT score on their resume than women?”. Even if that were true on the margin, it would not explain such a huge difference. Look, I would love to be proven wrong on this point but no school would ever dream of releasing segmented GMAT scores because of the clear, undesirable differences it would show. Just look at what Harvard (undergrad) is doing right now as they’re being sued by asian-american groups for discrimination. Harvard is fighting tooth and nail to prevent having to disclose the numbers. To the point that the DOJ is now having to sue Harvard themselves just to get the data.
    3. There are many other internal/school-specific instances of affirmative action that I won’t bother getting into but to my friends and me it’s comically obvious that affirmative action has been taken to an extreme in both the admissions office and also in the decision process for various application-required, on-campus positions.

    To my eye, it’s quite obvious that organizations like Forte and affirmative action broadly are only harming women in the long-run. It’s well documented (despite the taboo nature of the research topic) that people do better in the long-run if they’re in academic environments that match their abilities. The only thing that these organizations are doing are taking women who would’ve gone to a good-but-lower-ranked school and putting them in a higher-ranked school (hence the decline of women at lower-ranked b-schools). Or potentially on the margin they’re convincing a woman who was going to otherwise go to law/med/other-grad school to go to business school instead. How can anyone argue that society is better off or more egalitarian as a result of that transfer? It’s totally illogical. Why should we not just let the woman make up her mind herself? What if she wants to go to law school? What if she doesn’t want to get a graduate degree? Don’t try and say “Oh but no, what you really want is to go to business school instead”. It’s so patronizing. But that’s what these programs are designed to do. They view success as simply getting more women into the MBA classroom. On what planet is that a good measure of “gender parity”?

    Unfortunately society at large is not willing to speak honestly and rationally about this topic. And so in 20-30 years when there still are not more women in the CEO chair… what are people going to think then? That we need still more affirmative action? It’s obvious to me that at some point even supporters of these policies will start privately admitting that it’s having the opposite effect as intended (if they haven’t already realized that). But that still won’t necessarily lead to any changes since all these organizations can continue to signal their supposed-virtue and their executives can continue to receive laudatory articles like this one. To the executives (and b-school admission officers), who cares if women are successful in the long-run? These decision makers get to signal their virtue right now today. Thus, nobody has any incentive to change the equation. I think it’ll require people in the under-represented groups (in this case, women) to start publicly speaking out against these policies even though they have no personal incentive to do so and would risk derailing their career since the topic is so taboo. Until that happens though nothing will change.

  • Bob

    Ya, you are using way to much logic. we need more marxism

  • i agree

    Ya, how is it socially just to have a 50-50 split if women are not 50% of the applicants. If women are only 30-35% of applicants, how is it just to make it substantially harder for an equally qualified male to be accepted given 65% of applicants getting 50-557% of the seats?

  • Truth

    the GMAT is a joke and has let people delete their scores and take the test an infinite amount of times without record. can’t lose market share to alternative tests

  • not for nothing, but haven’t mean GMAT & GPAs continued to go up over the past few years? What’s the evidence of slipping standards, I mean?

  • Cam

    And if so then the issue isn’t actually the amount of women in each class it’s the amount of women in each applicant pool which is a different set of questions and answers entirely.

  • Cam

    Wait so based on “Deans privately acknowledge that the percentage of women in their applicant pools can trail their enrollment numbers by five or more percentage points.” Men apply more than women but it’s bad there are more men enrolled?

    Wouldn’t true parity be an accurate representation of applicant pool for the most part? I.e if 65% of applicants are male and 35% female then that’s roughly the same percentage enrolling.

  • abc

    Why stop at 50% women? If the admissions officers would only lower their standards even further, we could get to 60% or more! I guess that’d be too bad for the women who could get in on individual merit alone but oh well! Not to mention the whole piece about mismatch theory… but we don’t talk about whether we’re actually helping anyone. As long as that percentage goes up, society gets better, right? God forbid that just maybe men are slightly more likely to want to become business executives. Because let’s all remember, men and women are biologically identical and the only reason women choose not to go into STEM at the exact same rate as men is because society is sexist. To suggest otherwise is sexist indeed.