A Call to Action: Achieving a More Gender-Balanced Enrollment in MBA Programs Requires Understanding the Gap and Addressing It Now

By Livingstone, Linda A. | University Business, May 2007 | Go to article overview

A Call to Action: Achieving a More Gender-Balanced Enrollment in MBA Programs Requires Understanding the Gap and Addressing It Now


Livingstone, Linda A., University Business


FOR YEARS, PURSUING AN MBA has meant joining a mostly men's club. Male students have long been the norm at business school, and even today only one-third of students are women.

The sparse presence of women is all the more striking when you consider other fields. As a 2006 American Council on Education study found, women make up more than half of those enrolled in medicine and other health science professional programs. Overall, women make up 58 percent of total graduate-level enrollment nationwide.

One might think that hard-nosed business people, especially, would understand the need for hard-nosed meritocracy, regardless of factors such as gender. Indeed, evidence suggests, organizations perform better when they make efforts to include women in their senior ranks. A recent Stanford Business School study showed that gender and racial diversity enables a team to better manage conflict. Reason would dictate that the presence of women in a leadership meeting, such as a board meeting or critical planning meeting, would carry the same effect.

But such organizations are the exception. Nearly 40 years after legal and societal struggles for gender equity, women remain largely absent from top corporate ranks. These days at a typical Fortune 500 firm, fewer than 4 percent of corporate officers are women. And fully 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies reported no women as top earners, found the research group Catalyst.

For business educators, these numbers represent not just a failure of the system, but a call to action.

The goal of any educational program ought to be attracting the best and the brightest, period--regardless of gender, ethnic background, or geography. A program of education that consistently shuns any group of people will lose their potential contributions.

WHERE THE WOMEN ARE

Right now, MBA schools are missing about half the boat. To achieve a more balanced enrollment in MBA programs, educators should recognize three reasons that MBA programs attract relatively few women.

One has to do with the time of life most people pursue an MBA. Before starting a traditional MBA program, most schools encourage prospective students to get two to five years of business experience. Part-time executive programs typically aim for people with eight to 15 years of experience.

Nothing wrong with that. By nature, an MBA is an applied degree. The best programs ask students to wrestle with theoretical, academic issues in the context of business. Students are better able to succeed when grounded in real-world business experience. Inadvertently, however, the system seems perfectly designed to weed out women whose life-work choices may involve rearing children.

A second factor relates to the perception of business programs and the business world at large. At a time of seemingly highly publicized corporate scandals, environmental disasters, and ruthless cost cutting, it's all too easy to conclude that the business world is led by cutthroat, heartless, ethically challenged people who are oblivious to any societal mission beyond turning a profit.

A third reason goes back to the lack of women in high-level positions in the business world. After a conscious or unconscious cost-benefit analysis, women may conclude that earning an MBA is not worth the time, energy, and money. They may ask: Why go through all the trouble for the right to compete on a slanted playing field? …

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