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%).