Samantha Malone wasn’t planning to apply to an MBA program this spring. But when the coronavirus pandemic caused most top business schools to extend deadlines and suspend testing requisites, Malone, a product manager in the San Francisco Bay Area, found herself in a “Why not now?” frame of mind.
“I was planning on applying in the fall, but ended up speeding up my timeline, given the extended deadlines happening this year,” she says. “I talked with one of my mentors, who had been telling me since the day I met her that I should go back and do an MBA. And she was saying, ‘Why are you waiting? What is there to gain by waiting until next year to start?’ And I said, ‘It’s the first week of May, are you serious? I can’t do this right now, you’re crazy.’ She went, ‘Well, why not?’ And I went through my list of, ‘Well, there’s only a month. I haven’t even started my essays. I don’t know where I want to apply. I haven’t even taken the GMAT. I don’t know what I’m doing.’ And she went, ‘These are all terrible excuses. Can you give me better excuses? I’ll listen to you, but other than that, I’m going to keep bugging you to apply.’ And I stopped for a minute and I said, ‘You know what? You’re right. These are bad excuses.’”
Malone applied to five elite B-schools in May — “It was a hell of a stressful month,” she says. But the work and stress were worth it. She was admitted to four of her target schools. She chose the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in part because, she tells Poets&Quants, the current students there took the time to be helpful and answer all her questions despite themselves dealing with the stress and uncertainty of the raging pandemic.
Malone was part of a wave of MBA applications in 2020 that reversed several years of declines. But she was also a member of a more select group, as progress for women this year has encountered a plateau: Even as the pandemic threatens to roll back women’s economic progress writ large, more women showed concern about returning to school, stalling the steady progress women have seen in growing their numbers in graduate business education.
The percentage of women enrolled in business school overall held its ground in 2020 — or spun its wheels, depending on your perspective. According to the Forté Foundation, a nonprofit focused on gender parity in business and business schools, more schools than ever have 40% or more women in their full-time MBA, but even as B-school applications soared overall, there was no corresponding increase in women’s apps. In the Poets&Quants top 25 — many but not all of which are Forté member schools — more than half reached the 40% threshold this fall, but that is the same as last year and 2018.
‘WE NEED TO PLACE GREATER EMPHASIS ON WOMEN’S ENROLLMENT’
Positive news on the gender equity front can’t be divorced from the painful reality that the pandemic’s reverberations in the world economy are most keenly felt by women. According to the International Monetary Fund, women are more likely than men to work in social sectors that require face-to-face interactions — and these are the sectors are hit hardest by social distancing and mitigation measures. Moreover, teleworking is not an option for many women: In the U.S., about 54% of women working in social sectors cannot telework; in Brazil, it’s 67%. In low-income countries, the IMF says, at most only about 12% of the population is able to work remotely. Between April and June of this year, unemployment globally skyrocketed for women, rising more than 2%, and in the months since it has scarcely improved.
As women’s working world continues to suffer disproportinately, progress is gradual but measurable in the world of graduate business education, but only by zooming out with a wider lens. The Forté Foundation found that women’s enrollment in full-time MBA programs at its member schools overall inched up steadily for the last seven consecutive years, from an average of around 33% in fall 2013 to nearly 39% last year. This fall, the percentage of women enrolled at Forté’s member schools — representing the top MBA programs in the U.S., Europe, and Canada — remained the same as last year, despite the challenging economic environment. Both U.S. schools, with slightly more than 39% women enrolled, and those abroad, with 36% women, saw no change on average this year, Forté says.
However, there was progress. Twenty-two Forté schools – or more than four in 10 – reported 40% or more women enrolled in 2020, up from 19 schools last year and 12 schools five years ago. A decade ago, that number was one. Additionally, a record eight schools reported women’s enrollment at 45% or higher, up from three schools last year and none five years ago. Among those schools are George Washington University, Oxford University Saïd Business School, Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School, the University of Maryland Smith School of Business, the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, Arizona State University Carey School of Business, and — leading all Forté schools and those in P&Q‘s top 25 — Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, which reached the precipice of parity with 49% women in its Class of 2022.
“The good news is that despite challenges women face in the pandemic, such as a greater share of job losses, their enrollment in business school did not decline overall,” says Elissa Sangster, Forté’s CEO. She points out that more than half of Forté’s member schools reported increases in their proportion of women enrolled this year, up from 23 schools in 2019. However, five schools were flat and 20 saw declines.
“The surge in applications, which typically occurs during a recession, did not spark a corresponding climb in women pursuing an MBA,” Sangster says. “So, we will need to place even greater emphasis on women’s enrollment to ensure we don’t backslide, which could negatively impact gender equity in MBA programs and business overall.”
PANDEMIC CONCERNS STALL WOMEN’S PROGRESS
The MBA pipeline is a vital provider of women in leadership roles in the workplace. Forté, pointing to the fact that only slightly more than 6% of S&P 500 CEOs today are women, says that nearly 40% of them have an MBA; others have advanced degrees in other areas such as law and engineering.
“An MBA, or another advanced degree, can help more women crack the glass ceiling in business and help build the leadership pipeline at companies,” Sangster says. “Myriad research over many years has clearly shown that having a more diverse leadership team at companies contributes to better financial performance, which is needed more than ever in the current economic climate.”
When Forté was formed in 2001, fewer than 28% of MBA students were women. The organization was launched to address the barriers to greater enrollment by women in business school, Sangster says, including financial commitment. “Women tend to be more risk averse than men, and the financial commitment to pursue an MBA can be more challenging for them as they typically earn less than men,” she says. Some of these obstacles, she adds, were exacerbated in the pandemic. In May, GMAC research showed that in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the proportion of male and female candidates reporting they were “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” about the impact of Covid-19 on their pursuit of an MBA was similar — but by the end of April, more than half of women respondents (55%) said they were very concerned or extremely concerned versus only 37% of men.
“While some women continue to pursue their MBA this year due to concerns application volume would increase next year, or their scholarship would evaporate if they deferred, other women may have decided their best course of action was to wait,” Sangster says. “Anecdotally, we’ve heard incentives that helped accelerate women’s plans to attend business school include scholarships, extension of the application deadline and some schools waiving GMAT requirements, which also benefitted men. Others were motivated to enroll due to declining earning power and job security in the pandemic, which they hope to reverse by pursuing an MBA during this challenging time.”
HOPEFUL FOR A RESUMPTION OF PROGRESS
In Chicago, where Booth MBA student Samantha Malone is living despite all her classes being virtual, the percentage of women actually declined in 2020, dipping 2 points to 38%. That dropped Booth out of the 40% club. However, she notes, because Booth enrolled its largest-ever class, the number of women in the class actually increased.
The pandemic was definitely a factor in her applying this year to B-school, she says. A Forté Fellow who plans to go into consulting, she’s disappointed that more women didn’t enroll at the top programs this year, but hopes for a continuation of progress in the next year or two.
“I do remember seeing that the number of women in B-school is going up, as I was doing my research on different schools — more of them are hitting about 40%, which is fantastic,” Malone says. “I would love to see that continue to go up. I’m not sure if it will, at least not in the very short term, seeing as the economy has not been great for women overall.
“Maybe that means more women are out of work and will go back to school, but seeing how household spending, things like that has been impacted, I’m not sure that’s going to happen, which is a bit disappointing.”
See the next page for all the data from the last five years for women at the top 25 business schools in the U.S.