More Schools Are Nearing Gender Parity. What Does That Mean For The C-Suite?

Indra Nooyi, who stepped down as CEO of Pepsi in 2018 after 12 years, is an exception to the norm as a woman not only in the C-suite, but leading it. PBS photo

Each year, it seems, the number of women attending MBA programs at the leading business schools goes up. In the fall of 2017, 12 schools in the Poets&Quants U.S. top 25 were members of the 40%-or-greater club; a year later — the most recent year for which data is available for all leading schools — that number ticked upward to 13, or more than half. USC’s Marshall School of Business led the way, growing its female enrollment by an incredible 20 percentage points to 52% — an amazing 62.5% jump from 32% women in the Class of 2019. Among the other schools with big jumps in the number of women: Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, which grew its female ranks from 34% to 42%, and the University of Washington Foster School of Business, which jumped from 36% to 42%.

Preliminary reports from schools releasing early class profiles this fall indicate that the progress continues, even as applications are falling across the board. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania set a school record for most enrolled women at 47%; two fellow Ivies, Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business and Yale School of Management, maintained their membership in the 40% club by each enrolling 42% women. Another top-10 school, the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, also set a school record this fall for enrolled women, at 45%.

B-school gender parity is within striking distance. Yet for all their progress in the halls of academia, women have only chipped the glass ceiling in the business world. They account for less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 2% of S&P 500 CEOs. Why?

“Women are systematically prevented from getting into the C-suite, even when they’re hired at a 50-50 rate,” says Liz Elting, founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation and co-founder of language company TransPerfect, which she started in her MBA dorm room at NYU Stern in the 1990s and which now is the world’s largest language solutions company, with over $600 million in revenue, 4,000 employees, 11,000 clients, and offices in more than 90 cities worldwide. “Leadership is overwhelmingly going to men, and that’s due to sexism.”


Elting is an entrepreneur, business leader, and philanthropist — and she’s also a mother. Recognized as a NOW “Woman of Power & Influence,” an Enterprising Women “Enterprising Woman of the Year,” and one of Forbes’ “Richest Self-Made Women,” she has written extensively on the subject of workplace bias and discrimination — and she’s intent on changing the system that has kept other women from competing on a level playing field with men.

Because C-suites, by and large, remain men’s clubs where women aren’t eagerly welcomed. Often, in fact, a male-dominated culture makes top officers uncomfortable bringing women in.

“The men were there first,” Elting says. “And it’s natural that men are more likely to promote the people who looked most like them — other men.”


Poets&Quants is continuing its ongoing exploration of this problem by asking, Why can’t women get into the corner office? What, if anything, are companies doing to change? Are business schools helping to pave the way?

Elissa Sangster says that because of men’s preponderance at the highest levels of business, women often do not have other successful women to emulate. The CEO of the Forte Foundation, a nonprofit consortium of top schools and companies formed to help women in business and business education, says men are typically rewarded if they are available 24/7, can travel on short notice, and spend long hours socializing.

Casting a giant shadow over any discussion of workplace equity is the ever-yawning pay gap. Both women and men make more money as a result of getting an MBA. But in jobs after B-school, men make significantly more. According to Forte and P&Q, women with MBAs make anywhere from 72% to 76% of every dollar that men make.

Among the biggest stumbling blocks for women: starting a family. This, Elting says, is where the separation of gender roles persists most strongly. Raising children, caring for ailing parents, and maintaining a household are roles that still fall mainly on women, who may be as qualified if not more than their peers. And men — not women — often get raises to help them with the family obligations, such as the birth of a new child. “When women and men are at a similar level, and they have a child, the women are penalized, while men are often rewarded,” Elting says. But it’s not families, but results, that should matter, she says: “Maybe men can do the traveling but not pull in the profits, while the women can.”

The P&L path is critical to get on the top levels, Sangster says. Instead, she sees women veering off into CFO, legal, or chief administrator positions, where they have less pressure and more flexibility. This makes it harder to get back into the fast lane. The rare woman who does get into the C-suite could use an ally.

“Promoting more than one woman is optimal,” Sangster says. “It would help solve the problem of hostile workplaces by keeping men professional and gender-neutral.”


According to a report published in June in Harvard Business Review, gender diversity can improve a company’s bottom line by 21%. To achieve it, some companies are making major changes in their workforce: offering equal pay for equal work, more generous parental leaves for both sexes, adequate training to develop skills such as public speaking and self-promotion, support groups with other women, flexible hours, and on-site daycare. Seventeen of the Fortune 500 companies, including Walmart, IBM, Cisco, and Disney, already offer some child care and maternity leave benefits. Deloitte and Microsoft offer a year’s leave for each parent.

Still, overall this year paid parental leave is only available to about 13% of private sector employees and 7% to 8% of service and maintenance workers, according to

Solutions need to be systemic rather than individualistic, according to HBR. Obstacles faced by women are still seen as “women’s issues.” But men might enjoy a long paternity leave, free or subsidized day care, and flexible work hours, too. Furthermore, without men’s support, significant change is unlikely to happen. What’s at stake? A study by McKinsey projects that in a “full potential” scenario in which women participate in the economy identically to men, $28 trillion — or 26% — would be added to the annual global GDP by 2025.


Elissa Sangster. File photo

An exciting alternative for women: start their own companies.

“Silicon Valley was a great chance for a new kind of industry to be built,” Sangster says. “But because the leaders were men, they built it in their own image.” Once again, the men were there first.

Ditto for venture capital, Elting adds, where women may have a harder time getting funding. (Her foundation offers $100,000 to two women entrepreneurs each year.) It’s especially difficult for women entrepreneurs, who have little time in the launch phase for anything besides their nascent businesses. They have to put in unending hours and assume tremendous responsibility,

But if they can manage it, it’s an amazing opportunity, Elting says, even with a small company.


These are areas where B-schools have a lot to offer: training and preparation, command of the fundamentals and learning to be flexible in the face of challenges. Many schools, inside and outside the curriculum, are laying the groundwork for change, and enrollment numbers are only part of the picture.   

Among other approaches, many B-schools are experimenting with allyship programs, including “manbassadorship” programs where men learn about women’s issues while women gain confidence — and both learn to become real partners in pushing for greater representation of women in business. Such programs, Sangster says, strive to teach men to collaborate, listen, respect, and partner with women rather than assume superiority.

Starting at the B-school level is a help, but pundits warn that the backing of top leaders is critical. “The companies are not doing their part to implement a structure for fair hiring and promoting policies,” Sangster says. “We need more of the right men who really want 50% women at the C-level and to work with them to make it happen.”

Her prescription for change:

  1. Board-level conversations and transparency to show accountability.
  2. Corporate policies to ensure that all employees get the same opportunities.
  3. Training around unconscious gender bias.
  4. Being transparent about women’s growth within the company.

These are four “opportunities to be a great leader and to build loyalty,” Sangster. “If you’ve accommodated them, not a lot of women will walk away from that.”


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