Business Schools Are Failing To Live Up To Their Own Gender Rhetoric

While business schools often profess the importance of gender equality and representation, they invariably fail to lead by example. Business schools consistently admit more men than women to their MBA programs.

One GMAC survey found that other popular business degrees such as Master’s of Accounting and Master’s in Management have reached gender parity when it comes to applications. The MBA degree lags behind “with women driving just 38% of applications to full-time MBA programs”.

The Problem

In the class of 2022 Harvard Business School, for example, states that the percentage of those who identify as women is an underwhelming 44%. This contrasts uncomfortably with the vast amount of gender activism professed across the school’s media channels. Perhaps the school should take note of this 2020 article published in the Harvard Business Review explaining how leaders can move the needle on gender equity.

Harvard is not alone. Columbia Business School reports that just 40% of the class that entered in 2020 is female. In fact there is no well-ranked business school able to claim gender parity in its MBA class.

In addition to being morally indefensible, this lowers the quality of the MBA experience. It is well established that more diverse perspective leads to richer business discussions. More gender diversity would also help prevent business disasters such as these.

The Role Of Money

The disparity in the MBA classroom can partly be explained by money. One survey suggested that getting business school funding is a top challenge for 30% of women but only 9% of men. Meanwhile the persistent gender wage-gap means that women have fewer accumulated earnings to draw upon when determining how to fund their MBA education.

Even if a woman is able to secure the necessary funding, the ROI on the investment is unlikely to be as high as it is for a man. A report from Catalyst found that female MBA students are more likely to start their first post-MBA job at a lower level than men, even after controlling for experience. Less than a decade after graduating with her MBA, a woman stands to earn only 80 cents for every dollar her male classmates earn.

What Business Schools Should Do

As much as the lack of representation of women in MBA programs is a reflection of wider structural inequalities in society, business schools must do more to ensure gender parity in the classroom. 

This starts with the admissions process. Admissions committees must formally set a goal of equal representation in their MBA classes. To attract enough candidates, the Career Services functions of top business schools must do a better job of placing female MBAs at companies that are willing to pay them what they’re worth. Financial aid offers should be made more generous.

Business schools should also closely examine their admissions websites and blog posts. Evidence suggests that masculine words in job descriptions such as “active”, “adventurous”, and “ambitious” deter women from applying. This is also probably true of MBA program descriptions. Within the classroom business schools must get better at providing female mentorship. A 2010 Financial Times investigation found that at Columbia and Stanford the percentage of female faculty was as low as 17%.

Business schools should be at the forefront of addressing gender equity in the workplace. They won’t credibly be able to do so until their classes match their rhetoric.

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