Women Rise to Record Numbers at Top-Ranked Business Schools
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Women’s share of the entering class at top-ranked U.S. business schools inched up to a record this year in an admissions cycle shaken by the pandemic, though women remain a long way from making up half the class in most elite MBA programs.
Of the top 20 schools in Bloomberg Businessweek’s ranking, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth came closest, reporting that 49% of its new class was female, with the Stanford Graduate School of Business close behind at 47%, according to a Bloomberg Best B-Schools analysis of the classes that started in August and September for most programs.
The results were all over the place, with some of the highest highs and lowest lows in years. At the bottom of the list is Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School, where only one in four new MBA students is a woman. Cornell’s SC Johnson and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler were next, each at 31%.
Even this year’s record, at 39.05%, was barely above last year’s 38.95% and only a percentage point above the 38% figure of 2016, when Businessweek started tracking the data. To measure enrollment, Businessweek took the top 20 schools from its 2019-20 ranking and examined results from the same 20 over the past five years.
The virus roiled the whole admissions process, including the recruitment of women, admissions directors say. MBA applications are volatile in the best of circumstances, they say, ebbing and flowing with the business cycle more than for law and medical schools, which recently saw classes with gender parity. This year extended deadlines and suspended testing requirements to accommodate the crisis, as well as travel complications for international students, may have played a role in skewing the numbers.
“I think the competitiveness of the process to recruit women became even more challenging” in the pandemic, says Kelly Wilson, executive director of masters admissions at Tepper, whose 25% is down from 33% last year. “To see if it’s a blip, we need to have a couple more years to see what happens.” Cornell declined to comment on the share of women in its class. UNC had no immediate comment.
It all raises a more fundamental question: Why don’t women make up about half of business school students to begin with?
“I think it’s more that women need to see themselves in business roles and recognize that MBA programs are not just to get into banking and consulting careers,” says Pat Harrison, co-executive director of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth’s Tuck, whose 49% was up seven percentage points from last year. “An MBA can really advance someone’s career in many different industries.”
Tuck managed its feat of near parity only after a long effort to support women through alumni engagement and scholarships, Harrison says.
The share of women newly enrolled in MBA programs was down from last year at the University of Chicago’s Booth, the University of Virginia’s Darden, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton, MIT’s Sloan, and Northwestern’s Kellogg—half of Businessweek’s top 10. For most, it’s a drop of two or three percentage points from last year. But at Penn, for example, women’s share of the class was down by six percentage points, to 41%, its lowest in at least five years. The schools declined to comment on the falloff.
“I think volatility was spreading across the whole piece of the pie,” says Elissa Sangster, chief executive officer of the Forte Foundation, which publishes annual data on women’s enrollment in 50 of the country’s top MBA programs and has reported a gradual increase since the early 2000s. “It wasn’t necessarily because of the pipeline. It was more because of all the different choices and decisions and challenges this year brought on.”
The percentage of the new class at the University of Michigan’s Ross School is a relatively robust 43% women, if down two points from last year. Admissions Director Soojin Kwon says women thinking about business school are getting over some myths about it.
“Lots of people realize that you can get an MBA with a nontraditional, nonbusiness background,” Kwon says. “I think that has helped increase the number of women who are like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to be a banker to go to business school. I can get an MBA as a former journalist or a former attorney or a hockey player,’ as we have in our class.”
Stanford, whose 47% was flat from last year, stepped up its efforts to enroll more women in 2018, after three students came to see MBA Admissions Director Kirsten Moss. According to Moss, they said, “Kirsten, this is crazy. What’s it going to take to get to parity?”
Moss and the students held 100 intimate coffee chats over the course of six months, in which a current Stanford student was paired with a group of up to 10 women to talk about getting an MBA.
Anna Nakayasu, a first-year international MBA student from Japan, says that before she accepted, she talked to a friend studying at Stanford, who gave its culture high praise. Sure enough, Nakayasu says, she’s found “everyone is so passionate about whatever particular industry or social issue they’re concerned about, and the school’s really supportive of us in figuring out how we can tap that issue or interest.”
It was valuable information, she says, and “hard to tell from Googling.”
As for the pandemic, Nakayasu, 27, says she’d been wait-listed and wasn’t permitted to defer her attendance, but she wouldn’t have anyway. “Assuming that the situation probably wasn’t going to get that much better in the school year starting September 2021, I figured it’s just better for me to get started,” she says. “It felt like it was the best timing for me.”
—With Mathieu Benhamou
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