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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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen. www.ft.com/womenblog

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.