How can business schools get women to apply for MBA and other masters programs? The answer, according to data from the Graduate Management Admission Council, involves a mix of good news and less good news, and a path forward that requires schools to make long-term investments to understand the motivations of women to pursue graduate studies in business. .
In other words… it’s complicated.
Women have made great strides in representation in graduate business education over the past 10 years. In America’s Top 50 Schools (and a handful of top European schools), each fall cohort is now expected to be 40% or more female – and a disappointment for admissions though they don’t. Last fall, six of the Top 10 MBA programs reported 40% women in their full-time MBA programs, led by Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business, which sits on the borderline of gender parity with 49% women. Half of the top 25 schools – 13 schools – said they had reached the 40% threshold in 2020.
However – partly exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which is having a disproportionate impact on women, and partly due to other factors that have been simmering for a long time – the momentum is slowing down. Eleven of the top 25 schools lost ground between 2019 and 2020, including three that had reached 40% but fell below that level. Zoomed out, seven of the top-ranked schools have lost ground in women’s MBA enrollment over the past five years.
As International Women’s Day approaches, GMAC released a subset of data from the mba.com Prospective Student Survey showing large variations in female student decision-making processes across program types (MBA vs. Master of Commerce) and study destinations (national versus international), and which suggest that sustaining women’s enrollment gains in graduate business studies requires a deeper understanding of their aspirations and career paths.
“The journey to earn a graduate degree in business begins early and shapes over time,” Rahul Choudaha, director of industry knowledge and research communications at GMAC, written in a recent blog. He cites the GMAC Prospective Student Survey which shows that 52% of female applicants said they first considered a graduate degree in business while completing their undergraduate or high school education, while nearly a third – 32% – considered an MBA or other master’s degree in commerce after two years in the workplace.
A PAINFUL REALITY OF THE PANDEMIC: WOMEN HAVE BEEN MOST AFFECTED
The coronavirus pandemic has only further complicated the prospect of higher business education for female applicants. Covid-19 has created barriers for all applicants to School B, but the the impact was more severe on working women, who have widely expressed in polls their fears of being more at risk of losing their jobs and of being forced to take on more responsibilities in education and remote work. “Early data suggested that the candidates were more concerned on the impact of Covid-19 on their plans to pursue graduate studies in management, ”writes Choudaha. “The pandemic has heightened concerns and challenges for female candidates reported in previous research, such as the opportunity cost going to school full time, wanting to complete a program as quickly as possible, or balancing family expectations. Women are also more likely to work in lower paid sectors and to face gender pay gap. This can increase their dependence on external funding sources such as parents or scholarships to pursue graduate studies in management.
The painful reality is that the impact of the pandemic on the global economy has been – and will continue to be – felt most severely by women. According to the International Monetary Fund, women are more likely than men to work in social sectors that require face-to-face interactions – and these are the sectors hardest hit by social distancing and mitigation measures. Additionally, telecommuting is not an option for many women: in the United States, about 54% of women working in social sectors cannot telecommute; in Brazil, it is 67%. In low-income countries, according to the IMF, at most about 12% of the population is able to work remotely. Between April and June of this year, female unemployment skyrocketed around the world, increasing by more than 2%, and in the months that followed it barely improved.
Yet, as Choudaha points out, the female candidates for School B have adapted remarkably well. GMAC’s survey of prospective students planning to enroll in 2021 shows that nearly half of domestic applicants say they are changing their original plans, compared to one in three international applicants. “The data suggests that national applicants are slightly more likely to prefer online learning rather than considering a business school closer to their home,” Choudaha writes. “On the other hand, international candidates are considering alternatives at a lower rate than national candidates. This suggests the preference for global mobility as one of the key drivers for international applicants, and they don’t see online as an adequate substitute. For international applicants who are considering alternatives, there appears to be a slightly higher preference to stay closer to home instead of choosing online learning. In other words, international applicants always favor mobility – global or regional – over online learning.
“This reflects the confidence that women candidates have in the potential of graduate management studies to emerge from the crisis with a career advantage. The systematic challenges and concerns regarding gender parity in managerial careers are not over. A deeper understanding of the diverse career aspirations and backgrounds of candidates would help maintain the momentum for growing the future talent pool of female leaders through postgraduate management training.
The Application Trends Survey 2020 illustrates this confidence among female applicants, with a higher proportion of business management programs reporting growth in female applicants in 2020 (60%) compared to 2019 (41%). This growth in demand was observed in all regions and programs.
SILVER LINERS AND CONTINUOUS CHALLENGES
As the world of women’s work continues to suffer disproportionately from the conditions of the pandemic, progress remains gradual in graduate business education, but only by zooming in with a larger lens. The Forté Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of women in business schools and the workplace, has found that enrolling women in full-time MBA programs in its member schools has grown steadily over the past seven consecutive years, from an average of 33% in fall 2013 to almost 39% in 2019. Last fall, the percentage of women enrolled in Forté member schools, representing the best MBA programs in the United States and Europe, and Canada – remained the same as in 2019, despite a difficult economic environment – a victory in itself. The two U.S. schools, with just over 39% female enrolled, and those overseas, with 36% female, saw no change on average in 2020, Forté says.
Some background helps: Twenty-two Forté schools – more than four in 10 – reported that at least 40% of women were enrolled in 2020, up from 19 schools last year and 12 schools five years ago. Ten years ago, that number was one. In addition, a record eight schools reported female enrollment rates of 45% or more, up from three schools last year and none five years ago. These schools include George Washington University, Oxford University Said Business School, Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School, University of Maryland Smith School of Business, University of Virginia Darden School of Business, Arizona State University Carey School of Business, and – manage all the schools of Forté and those of P&QTop 25 from Dartmouth Tuck.
“The good news is that despite the challenges women face in the pandemic, such as a greater share of job losses, their business school enrollments have not declined overall,” Elissa said. Sangster, CEO of Forté. P&Q at the end of last year. She points out that more than half of Forté member schools reported an increase in their proportion of female enrollments this year, up from 23 schools in 2019. However, five schools remained stable and 20 saw declines.
And while more women are applying to School B – GMAC data shows that 60% of all B schools have seen growth in female applicants’ applications in 2020 (see next page) – it hasn’t triggered a increase in the number of women enrolling in these programs.
“The increase in the number of applications, which typically occurs during a recession, has not triggered a corresponding increase in the number of women pursuing an MBA,” Sangster said. “So we will need to put even more emphasis on enrolling women to make sure we don’t go backwards, which could have a negative impact on gender equality in MBA programs and business in general.” . “
See the next page for GMAC’s illustration of the journey of female business graduates.
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