How can business schools keep women applying to MBA and other master’s programs? The answer, according to data from the Graduate Management Admission Council, involves a mixture of good and not-so-good news, and a path forward that requires schools to invest long-term in understanding women’s motivations for seeking graduate business education.
In other words … it’s complicated.
Women have made great strides in representation in graduate business education over the last 10 years. Across the top 50 schools in the U.S. (and a handful of leading European schools, as well), it is now expected that each fall cohort will comprise 40% or more women — and a disappointment for admissions if they don’t. Last fall, six of the top 10 MBA programs reported 40% women in their full-time MBA programs, led by Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business, which stands on the verge of gender parity with 49% women. Half of the top 25 — 13 schools — reported reaching the 40% threshold in 2020.
However — partly exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which inordinately impacts women, and partly the result of other long-simmering factors — momentum is slowing. Eleven top-25 schools lost ground between 2019 and 2020, including three that had reached 40% but slipped below that level. Zooming out, seven of the top-ranked schools lost ground in women’s MBA enrollment over the last five years.
As International Women’s Day approaches, GMAC has released a subset of data from the mba.com Prospective Students Survey showing wide variations in women students’ decision-making processes by program types (MBA versus business master’s) and study destinations (domestic versus international), and which suggests that maintaining women’s enrollment gains in graduate business education requires a deeper understanding of their career aspirations and journeys.
“The journey for pursuing a graduate business degree begins early and is shaped over time,” Rahul Choudaha, director of industry insights and research communications at GMAC, writes in a recent blog. He cites GMAC’s Prospective Students Survey showing that 52% of women candidates reported that they first considered a graduate business degree while completing their undergraduate degrees or high school, while nearly one third — 32% — considered an MBA or other business master’s after two years in the workplace.
A PAINFUL REALITY OF THE PANDEMIC: WOMEN HAVE BEEN HIT HARDER
The coronavirus pandemic has only further complicated the prospect of graduate business education for women candidates. Covid-19 created barriers for all B-school candidates, but the impact has been more severe on working women, who widely expressed in surveys their fears of being more at risk of job loss and being required to shoulder more responsibilities of remote education and work. “Early data suggested that female candidates were more concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on their plans to pursue graduate management education,” Choudaha writes. “The pandemic intensified concerns and challenges for women candidates reported in prior research, such as the opportunity cost of attending school full-time, wanting to complete a program in the shortest possible time, or balancing familial expectations. Women are also more likely to work in lower-paying sectors and face a gender pay gap. This may increase their reliance on external sources of finances such as parents or scholarships for pursuing graduate management education.”
The painful reality is that the pandemic’s reverberations in the world economy have been — and will continue to be — 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.
Yet as Choudaha points out, women B-school candidates have adapted remarkably well. GMAC’s survey of prospective students planning to enroll in 2021 shows that nearly half of domestic female candidates report that they are changing their original plans, compared to one in three international female candidates. “Data suggests that domestic female candidates are slightly more likely to prefer online learning over considering a business school closer to home,” Choudaha writes. “In contrast, international female candidates are considering alternatives at a lower rate than domestic candidates. This suggests the preference for global mobility as one of the critical drivers for international candidates, and they do not see online as an adequate substitute. For those international female candidates who are considering alternatives, there seems to be a slightly higher preference for staying closer to home instead of choosing online learning. In other words, international female candidates are still favoring mobility — global or regional — over online learning.
“This reflects the confidence women candidates hold in the potential of graduate management education for emerging out of the crisis with a career advantage. The systematic challenges and concerns about gender parity in management careers are not over. A deeper understanding of female candidates’ diverse career aspirations and journeys would aid in sustaining the growth momentum of the future talent pipeline of women leaders through graduate management education.”
The 2020 Application Trends Survey illustrates this confidence among women candidates, with a higher proportion of business management programs reporting growth in applications from female candidates in 2020 (60%) as compared to 2019 (41%). This growth in demand was seen across regions and programs.
SILVER LININGS & CONTINUING CHALLENGES
As women’s working world continues to suffer disproportionately from the conditions of the pandemic, progress remains gradual in graduate business education — but only by zooming out with a wider lens. The Forté Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing women in business schools and the workplace, found that women’s enrollment in full-time MBA programs at its member schools has inched up steadily for the last seven consecutive years, from an average of 33% in fall 2013 to nearly 39% in 2019. Last 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 2019, despite the challenging economic environment — a victory in itself. Both U.S. schools, with slightly more than 39% women enrolled, and those abroad, with 36% women, saw no change on average in 2020, Forté says.
Some context is helpful: 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. Moreover, 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 Tuck.
“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,” Elissa Sangster, Forté’s CEO, told P&Q late last year. 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.
And while more women are applying to B-school — GMAC’s data shows that 60% of all B-schools saw app growth from female candidates in 2020 (see the next page) — that hasn’t sparked an increase in women enrolling in those programs.
“The surge in applications, which typically occurs during a recession, did not spark a corresponding climb in women pursuing an MBA,” Sangster said. “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.”
See the next page for GMAC’s illustration of women’s graduate business education journey.