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Even As Apps Slump, Women’s MBA Enrollment Steadily Grows

A new Forté Foundation report shows that progress toward gender equity in MBA programs is incremental but undeniable. Forté photo

It’s getting a bit tiresome to talk about the well-researched and mostly well-understood trend in applications to MBA programs. To sum up: They’re down. But a new report from the Forté Foundation offers a dose of good news amid the relentlessly bad: Even as apps have plunged worldwide (and particularly in the United States), the drive for gender equity in MBA programs continues to make progress.

According to a new report released today (November 6), the percentage of women who have enrolled in full-time MBA programs in the U.S. continues to climb upward, to about 39% on average in the fall of 2019. U.S. schools continue to outpace non-U.S. schools, which average 36% women enrollment.

Altogether, enrollment in full-time MBA programs at Forté member schools — which comprise 54 of the top MBA programs in the U.S., Europe, and Canada — has grown to 38.5% from 36.2% five years ago and 37.7% last year.

Nineteen Forté schools currently report 40% women or more, up from 13 five years ago. In 2005 there were none.

“Every year we see women’s enrollment inch up at business schools,” says Elissa Sangster, CEO of Forté, a nonprofit focused on women’s advancement and gender parity in business school. “The progress over five-year intervals, in particular, demonstrates a significant shift in gender parity at top business schools. At this pace, we’re confident we’ll reach our goal of 40% women’s enrollment by 2020.

“The number that’s most encouraging to me,” she adds, “is that group that’s pooling. First it was just getting them above 35%, and we were so happy to see that number going up. Then when schools started hitting that 40% mark, the numbers went up pretty quickly to 19 in that grouping. That’s really stability. What I take away from that is, there’s less volatility in terms of the numbers going up and then back down, and then up and then back down again. I think hitting that 40% mark, it means there’s stability but it also means that what you’re seeing in the classroom at those 19 schools is basically parity. You’re walking into the classroom, you’re looking around, you’re not thinking you’re the only one and you’re hearing the conversations be more balanced — all the things that you want to happen in a place that’s 50/50 are by and large going to happen when it’s 40/60.

“So that means that we’re getting close to half of our programs in that situation, and that’s great news. That means it’s a different experience.”

SCHOOLS ABOVE 40% WOMEN INCLUDE CBS, TUCK, SLOAN, KELLOGG, BOOTH, HBS

Elissa Sangster. File photo

There’s more. Forté reports that 33 schools, or more than 6 in 10, have 35% or more women enrolled — more than double the 16 schools five years ago and nearly quadruple the eight schools in 2010. In 2005, only three business schools had more than 35% women enrolled in their MBA programs. 

“If you step back from the data a little bit and you look at the progress that’s been made in such a short time period, it is remarkable,” Sangster tells Poets&Quants. “One or two percent isn’t a lot every year to be reporting on, and often I’m told, ‘Well, that’s not a great story, it’s 1%.’ I say ‘Yes, but look at the trend and look at how quickly this is happening and it is a significant change when we look at that growth. It is definitely moving in the right direction and there’s lots of things that have contributed to that. I continue to be pleased every year when we’re able to report growth.”

Two years ago, the University of Southern California shocked the world by reporting 52% women enrollment in the Marshall School of Business full-time MBA, becoming the first school to achieve long-sought gender parity. This year Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School came the closest to the grail with 49% women enrolled; two other schools had 45% or more women enrolled: The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (47%) and the University of Michigan Ross School of Business (45%), both top-10 schools. Among the 19 schools with 40% or more women enrolled, only one is in Europe, the University of Oxford Saïd Business School, at 44%, and one in Canada, the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management, at 42%. (See Poets&Quantsannual story on MBA programs with the most women.)

U.S. schools to cross the 40% threshold this year include Columbia Business School, Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business, Duke University Fuqua School of Business, Harvard Business School, MIT Sloan School of Management, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, and Yale School of Management.

“To put these findings in perspective, today only 5% of S&P 500 CEOs are women,” Sangster says. “Our research shows over 40% of these women CEOs have an MBA. Other women S&P 500 CEOs have advanced degrees in law or engineering, demonstrating that a graduate degree can help women crack the glass ceiling. And a wide variety of research has shown that having more women in senior leadership contributes to better corporate financial performance and risk management.”

STILL MORE WORK TO DO

Forté is a nonprofit consortium of multinational corporations and universities and business schools. Among its corporate sponsors are Amazon, Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Company, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo. It was launched in 2001 to address the inequity chronicled in the landmark research study Women and the MBA: Gateway to Opportunity. By 2005 Forté had grown to 25 member schools in the U.S.; today it includes 39 U.S. schools, four Canadian schools, and 11 European schools.

Among the numerous initiatives Forté has introduced over the years is the Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference and the Forté College to Business Leadership Conference, the latter of which was designed to introduce undergraduate freshmen and sophomore women to companies offering internships and entry-level jobs for college grads. Scholarships awarded to Forté Fellows have been key to increasing the number of women MBAs, climbing from 33 scholarships in 2003 to over 1,500 for the incoming class of 2018 — as well as another 1,300 for second-year students. Since 2003, Forté sponsor schools have awarded over $180 million in scholarships to Forté Fellows.

“Recent research we conducted shows that an MBA provides an economic mobility engine for women, increasing their salary 63% or more, but they still make less than men both pre- and post-MBA,” Sangster says. “Providing scholarships to help women pursue an MBA helps to level the playing field.”

Other initiatives the Forté Foundation has launched in recent years:

  • Forté launched the Men As Allies initiative in late 2016 with 10 business schools to help male students benefit from, and get involved in, enhancing gender equity on business school campuses and to take that experience back to the business world. The initiative expanded to 41 schools today. 
  • Its “Rising Star” pilot initiative, launched on 10 US undergraduate campuses in September 2015 has expanded to now include over 40, and is designed to help undergraduate women become well-informed about their many career options, including in business, and to compete for top jobs. 
  • The Forté College Fast Track to Finance Conference was launched in 2015, benefitting women specifically interested in exploring financial careers. 
  • Another signature effort is its MBALaunch, a hands-on 10-month program that provides guidance, resources and ongoing feedback on the business school application process, including monthly webinars, peer group meetings and feedback from experienced advisors.