Women and business education

For the past five years, women have outnumbered men in worldwide university enrolments and graduation rates. At US medical schools, women comprise half of all students, and women represent nearly 47 per cent of law students.

At business schools in the US, however, women are a minority. The number of men enrolled in MBA programmes in the last academic year totalled 123,385 globally, while the overall number of women was only 69,511, according to AACSB International, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

The other day, I spoke with John Fernandes, president and chief executive of AACSB International, about this discrepancy. He says:

“It’s still a long way off until we graduate as many women MBAs as male MBAs. We’re looking at roughly a two-thirds/one-third ratio of men to women. It’s hard to say when women will overtake men. I am being very speculative, but I’d say it’s still probably 20 years away.”

It is not for lack of trying. Business schools recently have increased efforts to woo more women to their campuses – from recruiting female students at the undergraduate level, to setting up special scholarships for women, to hosting conferences about women’s issues targeted at prospective applicants.

And to be fair to the schools, some of those efforts have yielded results. Today, women represent about 37 per cent of the student body at traditional full-time MBA programmes in the US; five years ago, women comprised 33 per cent of the student body, and 30 per cent 10 years ago.

Fernandes says:

“They’re trying very hard but they need to try harder.”

One way to get more women in the door, he says, is for schools to do more to develop their female faculty members so that they will one day become deans and role models.

“In order to become dean, you need to be an assistant professor, associate professor, and then a full professor with tenure. It’s a long process, and for women it’s often interrupted by having children. Business schools should be working twice as hard to make sure female faculty are progressing in their careers, and make sure they are being mentored even as they’re going to the childbearing mode.

“Of all US accredited business schools, only 17 per cent have deans that are women. That’s way too low. As the student population of these schools creeps closer to 50 per cent female, I’d hope that faculty and deans would also be closer to 50 per cent female.”

Perhaps the biggest reason business programmes have difficulty attracting women is that most MBA programmes require 4-5 years of professional experience – a prerequisite that creates a tricky timetable for a young woman who plans one day to start a family. Other professional degrees – law and medicine – do not have any work experience requirements and so many women enrol directly after university.

To overcome this, several leading schools have lowered that work requirement, and set their sights on recent college graduates and early career professionals with only a couple lines of experience on their CVs. Some, like Wharton, have begun recruiting at the university level, including at all-women’s schools.

Harvard Business School in 2007 launched a deferred MBA admissions programme for undergraduate students, which guarantees college students a place in a future HBS class contingent upon their graduation and the completion of two years of approved work experience. Attracting more women to the school wasn’t explicitly the reason for the programme, but it has certainly had that effect.

Rebecca Knight is a regular FT contributor

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