Closing the Gap: The Rise of Women in MBA Programs

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act. This was the first significant step toward righting gender discrimination in the workplace. It aimed to eliminate wage discrimination based on gender and mandated equal pay for equal work. However, it fell short in achieving that goal.  

In 2016, 53 years later, women were still paid significantly less than men. According to Fortune, in that year women were paid 80.5 cents for every dollar men earned.

Now, in 2020, the original intention of the Equal Pay Act is being realized as the gender wage gap shrinks and a rising number of women are attending business school. 

The strides made in women’s enrollment in MBA programs over the past five years is an optimistic indicator of the long-sought-after goal of gender parity. Learn about the enormous effort that made this shift possible and how you can capitalize on and add to the progression by attending business school.

You can also jump to the infographic below to read about the rise of women MBAs.

The Historic Gender Gap in Business

women in business school

Based on research on the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women made up the majority of the American financial services workforce (54 percent) in 2019. Despite making up the majority, fewer than a quarter (21.9 percent) of senior leadership roles within financial services firms were held by women in the same year. 

This disparity carries over economically. Based on the average full-time wages reported in 2019, women make around $9,600 dollars less than men.

This amount compiles when you look at the financial literacy gap. According to Merrill Lynch, twice as many women as men in the U.S. have no money in the stock market, and 41 percent of young women versus 28 percent of young men say their biggest fear is not knowing what they are doing (not market volatility). 

Getting business education helps level this playing field and many women are recognizing that. In recent years, there has been an encouraging uptick in women’s enrollment at business schools around the world.

The Rise of Women in MBA Programs

The historic gender gap in business can be attributed to the mirrored gap in business education.

In 1978, women earned more associate’s degrees than men; in 1982, women earned more bachelor’s degrees; and in 1987, women earned the majority of master’s degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Additionally, 50 percent of law and medical graduates are women.

This tilt to a female majority has yet to extend to MBAs, despite it being the most popular graduate degree. However, there is promise that in the coming years, the tides may turn to favor women in business school classrooms.

According to data collected by the Forté Foundation, the percentage of women enrolled in full-time M.B.A. programs continues to climb, growing to an average of 39 percent at more than 50 of the top business programs across the globe.  

This momentum is thanks to a few factors:   

  1. Improved recruiting efforts. Business schools have increased their efforts to get women through their doors by hosting events, putting in place more supportive systems, providing financial aid and tapping into their alumni networks. MBA programs have adopted parental-leave policies and founded support groups for students who are mothers. By putting in place efforts to support women who want to become mothers, business schools are sending a message that it’s acceptable to have a family and that it’s not a disadvantage.  
  2. The versatility of an MBA. Fifty years ago an MBA was seen as a one-way track to Wall Street. Today, that’s no longer the case. A modern-day MBA can be used for an array of different things, such as starting a consumer goods business, becoming an accountant or getting into investment banking. The opportunities an MBA provides have expanded in recent years, incentivizing more women to pursue the degree. 
  3. Formation of women-centric student organizations. Women are claiming their own space at business schools by defining communities that specifically cater to their success. Student organizations led by and for women are one reason for this rise in women enrollment in business schools. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business has a women-led student group that hosts “conversation pods” to address gender issues on campus.  “Manbassadors” at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business is an effort to bring men into the push for gender parity. The organization sends out a guide to bring awareness to the unintentional behavior patterns that they believe most men share.
  4. The change from GMAT to GRE. Quartz has accurately termed this change from the GMAT to the GRE as “the great broadening.” The GRE is the typical standardized test required for most graduate programs. On the other hand, the GMAT is the standardized test specifically designed for business school applicants. But as more business schools shift to accepting the GRE on applications, they have opened up the pool of candidates.

Best MBA Programs for Women

We’ve ranked five MBA programs for women based on the top reputational schools with the highest representation of women. 

  1. Stanford University Graduate School of Business. Women made up 47 percent of the class profile in 2019. Notable alumni include Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors. 
  2. University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Women made up 40 percent of the class profile in 2019. Notable alumni include Susan Wagner, co-founder and director of asset manager at BlackRock. 
  3. Harvard University Business School. Women will make up 44 percent of the incoming 2022 class profile. Notable alumni include Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook.
  4. University of Pennsylvania Wharton. Women will make up 41 percent of the class in 2022. Notable alumni include Ruth Porat, Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at Google.  
  5. Northwestern Kellogg School of Business. Women will make up 43 percent of the class profile in 2021. Notable alumni include Roshni Nadar Malhotra, CEO and Executive Director of HCL Enterprise. 

The rise of women enrollment in business school programs is an exciting one. Gender parity in business (a goal that would’ve been once laughed at in “boom-boom rooms”) is now closer to becoming a reality. Want to be a part of achieving that goal? Start by getting an MBA

Sources: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission | Bureau of Labor Statistics by Catalyst | Tales from the Boom-Boom Room: Women vs. Wall Street | Going Public: Wall Street Through The Eyes of a Woman | The Triple Pundit | U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics | Merrill Lynch | Ellevest | National Center for Education Statistics | Forté Foundation | University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business | The Quartz | McKinsey: Women in the Workplace 2019 | McKinsey: Delivering through Diversity | McKinsey: Realizing gender equality | CNN | The Washington Post | National Women’s Law Center | Fortune: Female CEOs| Fortune: Gender Pay Gap | GMAC