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Why women are turning away from MBAs

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Despite the coronavirus pandemic, business school applications are booming. MBA providers have been grappling with record numbers and increasing class sizes to accommodate a rush of executives seeking to improve their management credentials.

However, the gender divide persists. Demand among men for MBA places has been much stronger than among women, raising concerns that years of progress towards greater inclusion in business education is at risk of regressing.

The Forté Foundation, which lobbies for gender equality in education, found last year that the proportion of women enrolled in MBAs at their 52 member schools remained unchanged compared with 2019. Although almost half of schools managed to break the 40 per cent barrier in 2020, improvements in female representation across the membership had stalled.

Female enrolment in full-time business programmes had been inching up in recent years as admissions teams promoted female alumni, and schools offered scholarships specifically for women and targeted sectors where women hold more of the management roles.

When Forté was formed in 2001, it calculated that less than 28 per cent of MBA students in the US were women. A third of full-time MBA students at member schools were women in the autumn of 2013 and that rose to nearly 39 per cent of the group in 2019.

“There is a concern that the progress that has been made will go into reverse,” Elissa Sangster, Forté’s chief executive, says. “Concern has been higher among women about returning to full-time study during a pandemic, given that the jobs market may be far harder after graduation,” she says. The financial risk is often the biggest factor for female MBA applicants, she adds, and suggests the most effective change schools can make is cutting the price tag for those considering a return to formal education.

“High tuition fees, now six figure sums for two years of study at many highly ranked institutions, are the most common reason cited by women for not attending business school,” Ms Sangster says. “Candidates are also more likely than their male counterparts to be put off by the prospect of being taught virtually because they value most of all the face-to-face networking that is to them a key part of the MBA experience.”

Radhika Deb Roy had a place on the full-time MBA programme at the Wharton School to start in August 2020, but the 26-year-old deferred for a year when the pandemic struck because so much of the course had been moved online.

“My main motivation for doing an MBA was the network and surrounding myself with people who could be big influencers later in my career,” Ms Deb Roy says. “During the course you have just a short amount of time to be able to make these connections. I just thought to myself, I don’t want to be doing this online from my home in Singapore.”

Although she has waited, Ms Deb Roy does not want to hold off her MBA too long because of the additional concerns she has about balancing her career with having children, which she would like to do at some point.

“Even delaying by a year was a huge issue. You think, I’ll wait until my next promotion to really show I am a strong candidate. But I also want to complete the MBA, so I can get into a more senior management role before starting a family. Your career cycle is running in tandem with your biological cycle. Friends and I have spoken about freezing our eggs,” she says.

As the pandemic unfolded in 2020, research by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the MBA entrance exam administrator, found that unease about applying to business school grew faster among women than men.

At the end of March, there was little difference in the proportion of men and women who told GMAC they were either “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” about the impact of Covid-19 on their plans to pursue a postgraduate business degree, at 35 and 33 per cent, respectively.

Just a month later, however, the figure for female respondents had risen to 55 per cent of women while for men it had stabilised around 37 per cent.

“The impact of Covid-19 was more severe on women as they felt they were more likely to face the risk of job loss and shoulder more responsibilities of remote education and work,” says Rahul Choudaha, director of industry insights and research communications at GMAC.

The difficulty of improving gender balance in schools is that it is not enough to attract more female applicants if they continue to be outweighed by stronger demand from men.

For example, the number of women on the full-time MBA at London Business School for the 2020/21 academic year is 192, up from 189 in 2019/20. This was helped by 12 women being offered new scholarships funded by a £3.7m gift from the Laidlaw Foundation, a UK-based education charity.

However, despite a 16 per cent rise in applications for the 2020/21 academic year, the proportion of the female intake was 36 per cent, a fall from 38 per cent in 2019/20 and 40 per cent the year before that. This is a result of the greater demand for places from men, rather than a decrease in interest from women.

“I am not sure whether any school has found a guaranteed way to attract more women,” says Arnold Longboy, executive director, recruitment and admissions at LBS. But “the Laidlaw gift has been excellent because it is based on economic need, which allows us to greatly improve the diversity of backgrounds we can reach.”

The 20/21 class is also a great example, he adds, of how LBS has diversified away from finance and consulting candidates to include people from retail, healthcare, law and HR. “Much of this diversity has come from attracting more women,” Mr Longboy says.

Among the group of Laidlaw Scholars this year is Naveen Kler, a 29-year-old law graduate who hopes her postgraduate studies will give her the commercial skills to switch into a management role in impact investing, backing companies with a social purpose.

“I have been working in impact investing and might have stayed in my job if I had not received this scholarship,” she says. It was not just about financial security: as the first person in her family to go to university, when she mentioned doing an MBA no one knew what she meant. “The scholarship proved that the school had chosen me [and] wiped away all those feelings of whether it was right for me to be here or not,” Ms Kler adds.

Peer support is also important. The pandemic was a catalyst for Danielle Zarbin to quit her job as a senior marketing manager for off-Broadway theatre Playwrights Horizons and start the MBA programme at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management in upstate New York.

It was clear there was a long arduous road ahead for the theatre industry and a lot of people were going to lose their jobs, she says. But she was struck by the idea of helping arts organisations make better use of their data.

As much as she loved working in theatre, she was frustrated that no one was looking at how they could innovate with data. “I felt if I wanted to do something about it I needed to take a break and what better way to do that than business school,” she says.

When doing her research, Ms Zarbin sought the advice of other women who had completed one. She searched business school websites for contacts of student ambassadors and tapped the alumni network at Wellesley College, an all female university where she had completed her undergraduate degree.

“That camaraderie bolstered my confidence to apply,” she says.

The FT’s Global MBA Ranking 2021 will be published on February 7 at 8pm. You can see last year’s ranking here.


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