Business schools are no longer a strictly male preserve. Women represent 37% of full-time two-year MBA programme applicants for the incoming 2016–2017 class, a drop from 40% last year, according to GMAC’s 2016 Application Trends Survey Report. Overall, 54% of full-time two-year MBA programmes reported increasing application volumes for women in 2016 compared with 2015.
It is an undisputed fact that the presence of women in business schools and on corporate boards benefits both the women themselves and the organisations in which they operate. A study carried out by Forte Foundation, How to MBA and UNC Kenan-Flagler, shows that getting an MBA can significantly enhance women’s pay and position. Women with MBA degrees enjoy an increase in pay of 55-65% over pre-MBA salary levels within five years of graduation.
The beneficial effects transcend women’s personal gain. Law firm Reed Smith has found that boards with a 50:50 sex ratio are more effective and productive. According to Royal Bank of Scotland, fostering female entrepreneurship may add GBP 60 billion to the UK’s GDP by 2030. Meanwhile, the British Chambers of Commerce found that businesses steered by women were more likely to come up with a new product or service.
All this reads great, but the fact remains that gender-balanced business schools and corporate boardrooms still seem a thing of the future. However, the situation is changing, if slowly. Ilian Mihov, dean of INSEAD business school in France, told the Financial Times that attitudes are shifting and that younger adults are more aware of gender issues than past generations. He recounts a recent meeting with the incoming MBA class last year, during which a male student asked why there were no female professors teaching on the core courses. Mihov says:
Twenty years ago no one would have asked that question.
B-schools try to attract more women
In no small part, the progress is driven by initiatives launched by the business schools themselves. There are already many new programmes aimed at attracting more women. Schools sometimes compete for candidates, trumping one another with scholarship offers, Idalene Kesner, dean of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, told the Wall Street Journal.
Schools are also launching all kinds of initiatives to boost the number of women candidates. For example, last year Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business introduced a women-only business training programme for liberal-arts majors. Also last year, Harvard Business School held a weekend programme designed to introduce about 70 to 80 women, all potential business school candidates, to its MBA programme.
For all their efforts, business schools could do more. In an article for Bloomberg, Matt Symonds, chief editor of MBA50.com, contends that schools should increase the number of campus events and information sessions for women. There should also be more women academics, not least to send the subliminal message that female candidates are welcome.
The bad timing problem
There is one particular area that deserves special attention. Let’s say a woman wants to pursue an MBA degree. Most MBA programmes require at least four years’ work experience. This means that the woman will return to the job market in her late 20s, possibly saddled with debt, and with plans to start a family. This is a major reason why women don’t go to business school and many schools are working to correct this situation. Institutions such as Harvard Business School, Kellogg School of Management and Columbia Business School are advertising the suitability of their business programmes for students with children.
Kristina Milyuchikhina, a new mother and a student at Wharton School, says that business school is actually a good time to have a baby, adding that studying for a business degree offers more flexibility than working full time. Having a baby while pursuing an MBA degree requires meticulous planning but is possible, Milyuchikhina says.
Check out: 3 Mistakes That Women Leaders Avoid (Video)
Picking a school with a good university hospital will also help, as will waiting until your second year in business school to give birth due to the intensity of the first year.
Europe champions women in business
Help for women is coming also in the form of legislative measures. Some countries have committed to improving the representation of women on corporate boards. Two years ago, Germany joined a trend in Europe by passing legislation requiring big firms to give 30% of seats on non-executive boards to women. Although Germany is being led by a woman, Angela Merkel, the chief executives of the 30 largest listed firms are all men.
In recent years, as the topic of gender imbalance in Germany’s corporate landscape has started drawing increased attention, companies such as Deutsche Telekom, Munich Re and Adidas have allotted at least 30% of their supervisory board seats to women.
In 2003, Norway became the first country in the world to introduce a gender quota, requiring almost 500 firms to give at least 40% of their board seats to women. Similar measures were later announced by other countries, including France, Spain and the Netherlands.
Equality in classes may be near
Women are closing the gender gap in business schools, albeit slowly. Progress, however, is evident. Elissa Sangster, executive director of the Forte Foundation, a non-profit consortium of companies and schools promoting women in business, believes that equality in classes in many schools may be a reality in ten years. The hope, then, is that achieving the right balance in business schools will have a positive impact on business more generally.