Last year, I wrote a commentary for Poets&Quants describing the upside for women to earn an MBA in the midst of the pandemic. A year later, there is growing evidence that earning an MBA does indeed have a strong upside. For example, according to recent GMAC data, salaries for 2021 MBA grads could reach $115,000 — an all-time high — as the labor market continues to recover.
Women have made headway in 2021 according to a just-released Forte Foundation report, comprising 41% of applicants, (up from 38.5% in 2020). However, compared to all graduate programs, women represent nearly 60% of all graduate students in the US (also up from 58.5% in 2019) according to an October report from the Council of Graduate Schools.
Given the increasing evidence that an MBA pays off, why isn’t the percentage of women applying to business school in line with overall graduate programs? Here are three main barriers preventing women from applying to business school and some thoughts on what can be done to overcome them:
The investment. For many women interested in obtaining an MBA, the cost of the program may be a daunting investment. Earning an MBA from a top school can reach six-figures. However, there is growing evidence of surprisingly fast ROI. In a recent Wall Street Journal analysis that reviewed nearly 600 programs, the report found that MBA graduates typically made more money two years out of school than they had borrowed — making it a worthwhile investment that quickly pays for itself. The benefits of an MBA extend beyond the financial cost. Women should consider an MBA as a lifelong investment in their future that can provide an economical and a career boost.
We are our own worst critics. Research published in the Journal of Computer Information Systems studied how well men and women in mid-level business jobs performed on computing tasks found that women have less confidence when asked to rank themselves on their performance — even with the total number of questions answered correctly between men and women showed no difference. This perspective hinders women from earning their MBA and in turn taking on leadership roles in their organization. Women must change this self-imposed mindset and know women are just as capable as men to succeed in quantitative courses and an MBA program. We women must become our own cheerleaders.
Temporarily leaving the workforce. When enrolling in an MBA, many students must exit full-time work (and a paycheck) to complete the program. For many women, putting a career on hold can be discouraging and another reason not to pursue an MBA. However, taking time to invest in yourself, learn new skills, and widen your expertise is time well spent. There are hundreds of MBA programs to choose from, with many of them offering full-time two-year programs, part-time, and flexible schedules. For example, at Pepperdine Graziadio we offer flexible scheduling with online courses and classes at four separate campuses in order to help reduce travel time and increase instruction and learning.
The workplace will forever be changed due to the pandemic. As society re-emerges from the pandemic, new skills and positions will need to be filled and this serves as a great opportunity for organizations to focus their DEI efforts. Sectors like technology are seeing a growth spurt during the pandemic and are seeking new talent with MBA backgrounds. Other sectors are now turning to MBA graduates to address pandemic-related challenges, provide better products and services, and fill skillset shortages that have emerged as a result of the pandemic. The reward for women obtaining an MBA will not only support higher paydays and career trajectories, but also help create a more robust and equitable society.
Bernice Ledbetter is director of the Center for Women in Leadership and dean of students at Pepperdine Graziadio.