The Motherhood Penalty Starts in Business School 

Tamar Schamroth Liptz became a mother in Stanford’s MBA program

Stanford prides itself on the diversity of its MBA class. However, when I started in the fall of 2020, joining Stanford’s largest-ever MBA class of 436, there was one demographic starkly missing: mothers. Not one. I became the first, giving birth in the final week of my first year. And  I almost didn’t apply to business school.

Many factors may explain the lack of mothers in MBA programs. Many women choose to delay motherhood until their careers are on track, others are still looking for life partners, and for many, the financial burden of both motherhood and an MBA is too heavy. But the biggest factor may be that many do not know they can combine an MBA and motherhood, and recognize that going into a class where no one else ‘‘looks’’ like you or can empathize with you is daunting and isolating.

After one miscarriage and with the focus of starting a family ever-present, I figured my chance for an MBA was behind me, not knowing a single role model. I pushed back against my husband’s suggestion that I apply. “You can’t be a mom and do an MBA,” I protested. My husband doesn’t take ‘‘no’’ easily and set up calls with the few women he could find who had been mothers whilst at business school. With some encouragement from the discussion, I applied.

Taking the GMAT days after a miscarriage

Writing the GMAT entrance exam five days after my second miscarriage, having IVF and my first trimester coinciding with my first quarter at Stanford and having given birth in exam week, I can reflect on one of my loneliest journeys. A journey that could have been easier had someone in my class been in a similar situation.

The “motherhood penalty” is not new. Much has been written about how mothers get paid less than their non-mother counterparts, or how visibly pregnant women are seen as less committed to their jobs than non-pregnant women colleagues. (I was told not to mention miscarriages in my business school application essays by the MBA consulting company I used, advised that schools may question my commitment to studying if they knew I was trying to start a family.)

A penalty that may not be so evident is the scarcity of mothers applying to (and being accepted into) business schools. Stanford’s Assistant Dean for MBA Admissions, Kirsten Moss, notes that mothers represent “a tiny fraction of the 7,000+ applications” that she receives annually. This translates to the class profile. In Stanford’s starting Class of 2022, no mothers were present while eight fathers made the cut. The Class of 2023 is no different: zero mothers and 11 fathers.

As an MBA Mom, I had a very different experience from my classmates

This scarcity is not unique to Stanford. At Harvard Business School mothers represent 1 percent of the student community, with a ratio of fathers to mothers of five to one. The lack of mothers has been detailed by MBA moms from Wharton, Kellogg, and Darden, to name a few.

As a mother in business school, I had a very different experience from my classmates. My internship was giving birth. This meant that recruiting for a job after business school was more challenging, with no offer coming out of the summer. Whilst classmates were out most nights ‘‘networking,’’ I was home spending a few precious hours with the family and getting in some work between feeds. I became the de facto expert on motherhood in the class, fielding questions about fertility, pregnancy, childbirth accommodations and lactation rooms.

The school and professors were extremely supportive, and understanding when I needed to bring my son to a class or to miss class to attend to a sick baby. Classmates were wonderful, throwing me a baby shower and offering free babysitting.

As an MBA Mom, the academic experience has been hard and lonely

Overall, though, the experience has been hard and lonely. Moms at MIT and Harvard told me their challenges are similar: a lack of clarity around resources and birth policies when applying to school, exorbitantly expensive childcare if you can even get off the waitlist (my childcare bill is $2,500 per month – Stanford gives students a 5% discount), and often a feeling of isolation.

Skeptics may argue that mothers have a higher propensity to quit the workforce, and so should not be given a spot at a top business school. It is true that the labor force participation rate of mothers is considerably lower than fathers. However, it may be the education itself that keeps mothers in the workforce. Research by the Harvard professor Claudia Goldin on labor force participation during the Covid pandemic found that “the largest differences in pandemic effects on employment are found between education groups rather than between genders within educational groups.” College graduated women were far less likely to drop out of the workforce than their counterparts without degrees. Let us not forget Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who gave birth to her daughter, Jane, in 1995, just before entering law school, and was only parted from work in death. Or Kirthiga Reddy, Facebook’s first employee in India and the first female investment partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, who gave birth to her daughter after the first year of her Stanford MBA program.

What can be done?

Business schools need to encourage mothers to apply. Although Stanford’s MBA admissions office knows the number of mothers applying and being accepted into the class, this metric is not disclosed. If this number were published, just as the school publishes the number of women, internationals, Black Americans, etc., it would both highlight the issue and encourage discussion. Although much effort has been made to increase the number of women applicants, mothers have not been a specific target group.

What business schools can do to make MBA Moms more welcome

Expand the resources provided to prospective MBA moms. This should include guaranteed on-campus childcare, financial aid that covers the cost of childcare and basic family needs, more lactation rooms, and a more flexible birth accommodation policy.

Finally, motherhood should be weighed positively in admissions decisions. Although admittedly difficult to measure and compare, some leniency when one has taken time off ‘‘work’’ to give birth and/or raise children should become a standard. What other job requires you to be sleep deprived for months, manage a household whilst hormones are wildly fluctuating, and care for another human who relies on you for everything whilst balancing the other demands of life. If motherhood could be seen for what it is – the hardest job in the world – it would come first in discussions on work experience.

Would I do it all again? Definitely. But I hope that the experience of future MBA moms will be a shared and supported one.

Tamar Schamroth Liptz, originally from South Africa, is finishing her MBA at Stanford. She was an investor in companies across Africa and will be joining a multi-family office. She lives in California with her husband, Itai, and 1-year-old, Lior.  



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