Two steps forward, one step back.
The march toward gender equity in full-time MBA programs is experiencing what’s called halting progress. A Poets&Quants analysis of the percentages of women at the top 25 U.S. business schools shows a mixed picture, with most of the elite schools seeing reversals of previous gains while the lower-tier schools see incremental improvement. Analysis of a handful of schools outside the U.S. also reveals gradual progress — but makes clear that U.S. schools are leading the way in the drive to achieve and maintain equal gender representation in MBA programs.
The big story in 2018 — and the talk of much of 2019 — was the University of Southern California, which saw its percentage of women in the Marshall School of Business MBA grow by 20 points in one year, to 52%, making Marshall the first major school to achieve the holy grail of gender parity. This year Marshall came back to Earth a bit, dropping to 42%, which still places it among the leading schools.
Leading the way this year are two schools accustomed to the position: Stanford Graduate School of Business and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, each of which reported 47% women in their latest classes. They are followed by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business at 45% and Harvard Business School and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, each with 43%. In all, 13 schools eclipsed 40% women enrollment, same number as last year — though not the same schools. Two MBA programs — at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business — dropped into the 30s, while two others — at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the University of Texas-Austin McCombs School of Business — climbed into the 40s.
A POSITIVE 5-YEAR WINDOW, AND A MIXED 2-YEAR
While USC was the biggest decliner from 2018 to 2019, in a five-year period going back to 2015 the Marshall School is still among the leaders in gains, having grown 12 percentage points, or 40%, from 30% to this year’s 42%. The biggest jump in that period, however, has occurred at Michigan Ross, which climbed 13 points to 45% this year from 32% five years ago. That’s a 40.6% improvement.
It’s among the top 10 schools where the five-year window is most instructive. The women enrollment average for those schools in 2019 is 42%; five years ago it was 40.9%. That’s a 1.1-percentage-point and 2.7% improvement — small, incremental, but an improvement. However, if you look only at the two-year window, you find a 0.5-percentage-point drop, which amounts to a 1.2% decline. Two steps forward, one step back. In the last year, only three schools in the top 10 saw gains in the number of women in their MBA, while seven saw declines; but over the last five years, five schools have gained, three have stayed flat, and only two have declined. (See page 2 for a complete five-year breakdown of the data.)
Overall in the top 25, 13 schools saw gains over the last two cycles, at an average of 2.85 points; the biggest gainers were at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business (+7, to 38%), Stanford GSB (+6), Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business (+5, to 33%), and Wharton (+4). Meanwhile, 11 schools had declines, at an average of 3.5 points. The biggest declines were at USC Marshall, Washington Foster, and UC-Berkeley Haas (see table below). One school stayed even: Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, which shares with UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School the distinction of having the lowest percentage of women in their full-time MBA programs: 29%.
THE BIG PICTURE: MANY ENCOURAGING SIGNS
That five-year look is, again, much more positive. The number of schools that gained in percentage of women in the full-time MBA since 2015 is 15, at an average of 5.9 points; the number of decliners is only seven at an average of 2.4 points. Three schools — and they are three of the leaders in the push for gender equity: Northwestern Kellogg (43%), MIT’s Sloan School of Management (41%), and Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business (42%) — were even.
“Every year we see women’s enrollment inch up at business schools,” Elissa Sangster, CEO of the Forté Foundation, a nonprofit focused on women’s advancement and gender parity in business school, told P&Q in November. “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.
According to a November report by Forté, the percentage of women in its member schools 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. Forté’s member schools comprise 54 of the top MBA programs in the U.S., Europe, and Canada. U.S. schools continue to outpace non-U.S. schools, the group reported, the latter of which average 36% women enrollment.
Altogether, enrollment in full-time MBA programs at Forté member schools 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. Forté also reported 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.
“The number that’s most encouraging to me is that group that’s pooling,” Sangster said. “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.”
(See the next page for a five-year breakdown of trends in female enrollment at the Poets&Quants Top 25 schools, as well as a look at women MBAs at the top European schools.)