Women and business schools: a look at progress

A decade ago, the University of Michigan published a landmark study that examined why fewer women attended schools of business than schools of medicine or law.

The research became a veritable call to arms in the business school community and helped launch the Forté Foundation, a US consortium of companies and business schools that aims to address this imbalance and its effect on the corporate world.

As the foundation prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary, I spoke to Elissa Ellis-Sangster, executive director, about the progress it has made.

The news is decidedly mixed. On the positive side, she says, the number of women taking the GMAT – the standard entry test for business schools in the US – has risen by 30 per cent over the past 10 years. Business school enrolment by women has also increased. Ten years ago, on average, women accounted for 22-28 per cent of the student body at a business school. Today, they make up 28-35 per cent. At top schools, the figure is closer to 35-40 per cent.

“Those numbers are heartening. But I want to double or triple those figures. We’d love to see a 50-50 split, but we’d be happy with 40 per cent women,” says Ellis-Sangster.

“There is still more work to be done. A lot of it is about messaging and demystifying what a career in business [entails]. We need to convey that an MBA is not just for people who are going to Wall Street, who work 80 hours a week with no life balance. An MBA is a portable credential that will give you a lot of flexibility as an employee.”

On the negative side, however, are data about women at the top. Women still make up less than 16 per cent of corporate officers in the 500 largest US companies. And while they enter many business fields at the same rate as men, they seem to disappear in the ranks of senior management. (This is partly due to the fact that women who choose to have children leave their jobs – at least temporarily – and often do not return to the workforce at the same professional level.)

The way to combat this problem, according to Ellis-Sangster, is to ensure that young women have a career road map to help them “off-ramp and on-ramp” in and out of the workforce.

“The key is preparation and planning prior to your departure,” she says. “If you step out of the workforce to have a baby, and then 18 months to two years later say, ‘I’d like to go back in,’ that’ll be hard to do. Many women are overwhelmed by the prospect of it, and they either choose not to go back or go back at a reduced level. So we need to educate women on how to make it work, and give them a game plan. We also need to provide positive role modelling so they can see how other women have done it.”

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