How USC Marshall Achieved Gender Parity

Pictured from left to right are Daniel McCartney, Baylis Beard, and Casey Brown. Courtesy photo

When Daniel McCartney, Jessica Schleder, Casey Brown, and Baylis Beard stepped foot on the campus of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business last year they immediately noticed something that didn’t sit well with them. Only 32% of their incoming classmates slated to graduate in 2019 were women. At a time when many leading business schools have made progress in recruiting more women into their MBA programs, the four students felt Marshall was lagging.

After all, among the country’s most elite schools, 11 enrolled at least 40% women last year, led by Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, which each reported 44%. Only a handful of schools among Marshall’s peers were less than that 32%, with Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in the cellar at 27%.

The students, who first met at Marshall’s Graduate Women In Business group, even researched how gender parity stacked up at the different graduate schools within USC. The results were similar. “We were shocked to see that even the engineering school had more women than the business school,” Brown says. So they decided to do whatever they could to help Marshall reach gender parity. “We thought, if we want to reach 50% and hit gender parity at Marshall, we have to do it,” McCartney adds. “We can’t rely on the school. We had to push it.”


Those early conversations led to a result that even surprised the students: This year, the Marshall School of Business has become the first major business school in the U.S. to reach gender parity in its full-time MBA program (see USC Marshall Reaches Gender Parity). The school reported that 52% of its incoming MBA students this fall will be women, a whopping 20-point percentage jump from that 32% last year. The back story on how the school was able to achieve this goal, well ahead of the students’ initial aspirations, is an inspiring tale of student activism, hard work and dedication. Ultimately, the students would deliver a highly detailed 14-page report that served as a blueprint for Marshall’s breakthrough.

It began with courtyard chats. The four would talk to anyone and everyone they could about what they thought could improve the process of getting women to enroll at USC Marshall. Then, they held organized coffee chats. And then came a survey to students in the Class of 2017.  With a goal of getting Marshall’s full-time MBA program to gender parity by the year 2030, the team set out to better understand what barriers they were up against.

Some 73% of the survey respondents believed that reaching gender parity was either “important” or “very important.” The vast majority of the class believed men and women had good relationships at Marshall and that USC, in general, was a safe place for women. The problem? Most women reported that they were unaware of the school’s  programming specifically designed for women, including the Marshall’s Women’s Weekend, which invites accepted and prospective students to USC Marshall to learn more about the school.


When the group asked classmates how Marshall could improve its chances of enrolling more women, the suggestions came in fast and furious, with highly valuable insights. “During admissions and acceptance,” wrote one respondent, “I did not see any presence about inclusion, despite being a Forte member. I myself was a Forte member but I saw so much more representation from schools like Cornell, NYU, Columbia, UC Berkeley.”

Added another: “I’m not aware of being invited to participate in any programs around the diversity and inclusion of women during the admissions process or after acceptance. Once enrolled, it was the initiative of my female classmates that brought the women of our core together to support each other.”

One respondent urged better and deeper communication. “Have women stories from Marshall MBA or Alumni (just like Forte) to help women who are apprehensive feel they can do it too. When you hear from a cohort of women who are empowered, happy, strong, and successful it can be powerful. No matter how much Marshall says we have 30% women, we partner with Forte, we have a women’s resources, etc., it doesn’t carry as much weight compared to hearing from the women in the program. People relate to stories and others like them. This matters.”


Many of the elite business schools have been striving for gender parity for the past five years since 2012, when only three of the top 25 schools had 40% or more women enrolled. In 2015, a similar student-led initiative cropped up at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business after consecutive incoming classes with women representing 29% and 32% of the class. The work there — and at many other schools — has led to surges in women enrolling at elite business schools. Last fall, 17 Forté Foundation member schools reported having at least 40% women in their incoming classes. This year, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management hit a record on women, reaching 46%. But no school had hit the 50% mark.

“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,” Forté Foundation Executive Director Elissa Sangster told Poets&Quants last fall. We are on a positive trend, and I don’t see that turning. This progress demonstrates that gender parity is not a pipe dream.”

“Forty percent is a place where women are no longer feeling like the minority,” she added. “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.”

Still, besides the women-led clubs on campuses, such as the Graduate Women in Business, and the fledgling “Manbassador” clubs popping up, most of the work to actually enroll more women has been centered in admissions offices.

Women representation at the top business schools and other graduate programs at USC. Graph from 50 by 30 Initiative report

With hard data in hand, the USC Marshall students began looking at what other schools with at least 40% women were doing. The team learned that the majority of those schools had separate webpages dedicated to women. “The website is the first touch-point in the admissions process and the face of the school,” according to the team’s robust 14-page report.

Many other schools used their web presence smartly to appeal to young professional women. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business highlighted the fact that 62% of the graduate student clubs on campus are led by women. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management advertised weekly coffee on-campus chats every Monday and Friday as well as a Preview Day exclusively for women that included mock classes and a Q&A by career management staffers exclusively for women. The University of Washington’s Foster School of Business played up the fact that the Princeton Review ranked the school second in having the best resources for women. UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business prominently featured a video of an MBA student whose questioning of the status quo led to the student-led gender equity initiative at the school.

While USC already had a page dedicated to women at Marshall, the students concluded that it was challenging to find and did not live where it could have the most impact under the admissions section. What’s more, the students agreed that Marshall’s website should feature profiles of current female students and alumni, host school-sponsored gender equity events and initiatives, and, put an emphasis on one-one-one touch-points for women from regularly scheduled coffee and lunch chats to webinars and happy hour social events. “Most importantly, women need more, direct programs that facilitate conversations between prospective women and current women,” according to the report. “Women reported that the biggest informational influence in choosing Marshall was talking with current women in the program.”

The study also found that many schools with higher percentages of female MBA students featured profiles of women students and/or faculty. The schools that routinely did this included Stnaford, Booth, MIT Sloan, Columbia, UCLA Anderson, NYU Stern, UNC Kenan-Flagler and Emory Goizueta. “By highlighting what women are doing for women, these schools display a deep sense of community, inclusivity and support that many prospective women are looking for in a business school,” the report concluded. The Marshall students also discovered that three quarters of the schools with public initiatives and centers to increase gender equity and/or women’s progress have achieved female MBA enrollments topping 40%.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.