How USC Marshall Achieved Gender Parity

Students at the USC Marshall full-time MBA orientation Monday, July 23 at Town & Gown. (Photo/William Vasta)


Armed with the data — and an action plan to boot — the team went to the administration. Conversations with the administration at Marshall started off slow, McCartney says. “It was a slow build where we had to gain our own credibility,” McCartney admits. But as the team gathered the data and put together reports, talks with professors, deans, and the admissions office picked up. And when the data was compiled into the report, the conversations quickly became serious, McCartney says.

“That showed the administration that we were serious and we had something that they would want,” he says. “I think it came down to walking a fine line that we wanted to do this with the administration, but we were also going to do it no matter what.”

The team says the administration deserves the “lion’s share of the credit,” but also agreed it was the initial student-led activism not just from them, but dozens of other Marshall students, that led to the emphasis on enrolling more women.

“We were able to make it a movement enough to be a priority, and they were able to run with the priority,” McCartney says. “It was students pushing the administration. But then it was the administration taking that pressure and turning it into action. That is what really made this happen.”


Still, there are multiple variables many business schools have to overcome when striving for gender parity, the team admits. For one, Beard says, it comes down to the stage of life as well as timing and money. “The cost was a thing,” she says of her own personal journey to B-school, a point affirmed in her talks with some of her fellow women in the program. “The time that a woman is thinking about business schools is often also the time they are thinking about marriage and family,” she adds. “That initial decision of having to maybe choose between the two could be tough.”

Plus, Brown adds, the schools ranked 15th to 25th are fighting an uphill battle against such higher-ranked schools as Wharton and Kellogg, or Harvard and Stanford. There’s little evidence that more women are actually in the overall MBA applicant pool so that schools with more brand power have an advantage over others in increasing female enrollment. In fact, several second-tier business schools have seen the percentage of women in their MBA programs drop to levels unseen in ten or more years as more selective schools dipped deeper into the applicant pool. “If there’s only X amount of women and half of them get into Harvard, it’s pretty hard to make that case not to go to Harvard. And that definitely plays into it,” explains Brown.

“One of the biggest problems is yield (the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll),” according to the students’ report.  “Women historically have decided to attend other schools. While this may be due to scholarship money in some cases, our survey results indicate that the decision to go elsewhere is fueled by the lack of visibility of existing resources (such as the Women’s Weekend — 66% of women students surveyed did not know about it) and lack of personal touch-points in the admissions process. Our prospective women want and need more information about being a woman at Marshall.”

The leadership team for the USC Marshall chapter of Graduate Women in Business. Courtesy photo


The tipping point for Marshall, the team believes, came down to Women’s Welcome weekend held last January. According to Brown, the organizers loaded the event with first- and second-year students — both men and women. “We had tons of other men in our program that were just so invested in this issue. Surprisingly to me, to be frank,” Brown says. The prospective students attending were able to ask questions first-hand to current students and get a real sense of the lay of the land for women at USC Marshall. “From there we stayed connected monthly with each of the women that attended,” she adds.

Marshall’s Director of MBA Admissions concurs that the increased communication and contact with admitted and prospective students played a heavy hand in the school’s ability to reach gender parity.

“Our students pretty aggressively recruited people we liked and especially people we admitted,” Bouffides told Poets&Quants last month. “We have a lot of women involved in the ambassador group and our Graduate Women in Business club also helped to convince people to come.

“It strikes me that the quality in the overall pool was the strongest that I have seen and stronger than last year,” he added. “Had I known last year that the cycle would end up with 2,000 applicants maybe we could have done better. So some of it is processes. Some of it is the terrific work of our students and staff, and there’s probably a little luck in there.”


The work paid off. The school increased total applications slightly to 2,017 for this year’s incoming class compared to 1,998. Average GMAT scores and GPAs also ticked up slightly while jumping 20 full percentage points in women enrolled. Yield for women surged to 40.1% from 31.3% for last year’s entering class. Overall, Marshall’s yield for its full-time MBA program last year was 38.7%.

But the work is not done, the team says.

“The mistake a lot of business schools make is they get a tremendous amount of lip service,” McCartney says, referencing the commonality of touting things like Manbassadors and women in leadership roles, even if the percentage of women in the program is still small. “If you want to change culture, you have to have 50% women. Then the culture will change almost instantaneously.”

And now the USC team is looking to see if other top business schools to follow suit.

“We want this to be across the U.S. This isn’t a USC problem, it’s an all business school problem and we want to increase the pipeline,” McCartney says. “We want to put pressure on the other schools. I want every dean and administration to know that next year, they should want to come in second (to Marshall) with most amount of women enrolled.”

To read the team’s full report, go here. And for the team’s PowerPoint presentation, go here.


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