Categorized | Grad School

B-Schools Seek Boost By Targeting Women

Posted on 14 October 2009

Fear of math and muggers.

That, in a nutshell, is what Don Martin sees as his biggest obstacle to attracting more women to the M.B.A. program at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business, where he is associate dean for enrollment management.

With women accounting for only a quarter of full-time enrollment, Chicago lags behind most major business schools. The trouble is, Mr. Martin says, some women feel insecure about their math skills at a school renowned for its quantitative approach and worry about crime in the school’s Hyde Park neighborhood. “We’re a full-menu school offering 13 concentrations including general management and entrepreneurship,” he says, “but people think only quant jocks come here.”

Chicago is just one of many business schools — including Harvard, Michigan and Columbia — scrambling to break the glass ceiling on female enrollment, which typically hovers around 30%. Certainly that percentage is a big jump from the mid-70s, when only 11% of full-time M.B.A. students at Harvard, for instance, were women. Still, the continued disparity between the genders has spurred schools to action.

Chicago now holds receptions for prospective women students in seven cities, and the school recently created the publication “Why Women Choose Chicago,” which profiles graduates in marketing and e-business — not just finance. The school also is taking the offensive in its application kit, citing police statistics that show Hyde Park is safer than many areas of the city. There’s a long way to go: This fall the percentage of full-time women M.B.A students there is expected to drop to 23% from 27% in 1990.

Meantime, the Goizueta Business School at Emory University made a point of featuring a woman prominently on the cover of both its full-time and executive M.B.A. catalogs — the men are blurry images in the background. And to send the message that it is female-friendly, the University of Notre Dame is mailing a letter to prospective women students not from the business school dean but rather from Muffet McGraw, coach of its No. 1-ranked women’s basketball team.

Snagging more women has been a maddening seesaw experience for many schools. While business schools at Harvard University, Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania expect more women in this fall’s class, Duke University and Dartmouth College are bracing for a decline. “We work on it all the time but just can’t get our arms around it,” says Marcia Armstrong, associate dean of masters programs at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. After having achieved a 36% share of full-time women last year, SMU’s incoming M.B.A. class is only 28% female. Similarly, Stanford University jumped to 41% last year from 29% in 1999 but expects to drop back to 38% this fall.

The reasons why are complex. For one thing, students typically are about 28 years old when they enroll for their M.B.A. degree, creating what one business-school official calls “a biological collision.” As they near 30, many women are focusing on marriage and children and are reluctant to begin a demanding M.B.A. program. Medical and law schools attract more women, in part because they tend to begin right after college, while most business schools seek applicants with at least four or five years of work experience.

“I knew I wanted to have a baby and wasn’t going to enroll in business school,” says Christine Pierroz, a 35-year-old student at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto. “But after scoping out programs, I discovered York was surprisingly accommodating.” When Ms. Pierroz gave birth to her first child this summer, she took maternity leave from her job in pharmaceutical marketing — and from her M.B.A. program. Upon returning to York, she will be able to tailor her class schedule to suit her work and family needs. York credits such flexibility for its above-average 41% share of women M.B.A. students.

New policies at a few major schools may help resolve the timing problem. While they are not targeting only women, Harvard and Stanford recently began encouraging people to consider applying to business school soon after college. Harvard’s “early career” brochure declares “no minimum age or experience required” and features an eclectic list of young achievers such as Mozart, Bobby Fischer, Jane Austen and Steve Jobs.

“A side benefit of our early career initiative should be a good percentage of strong women in the pool of applicants,” says Eileen Chang, associate director of admissions at Harvard Business School.

Some schools are going beyond marketing and are creating courses with a female perspective. The University of Michigan offered an entrepreneurship course this year taught by a group of women business owners. At Harvard, more case studies include women protagonists, such as Jeanne Lewis of Staples Inc. and Donna Dubinsky of Handspring Inc.

The stepped-up campaign to woo women comes partly in response to a study last year by Catalyst Inc., a New York research group, and the University of Michigan. The survey of M.B.A. graduates was a wake-up call to some schools. It identified key reasons women avoid business school — the small number of female mentors and role models, concern about balancing work and home life in the corporate world, and little encouragement from employers to secure an M.B.A. “Women tend to go into fields where M.B.A.s aren’t so necessary to advance, like publishing, marketing and fashion,” says Ms. Chang of Harvard.

Because of the Catalyst/Michigan study, the Working Group on M.B.A. Women expects to form a nonprofit organization this year that will offer scholarships to women and promote business education in undergraduate colleges, high schools and possibly even to Girl Scout and Junior Achievement groups. Participating schools include Columbia University, Michigan, the University of Texas, the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth. The corporate members: Dell Computer Corp., Deloitte Consulting, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Procter & Gamble Co. and the Kraft Foods unit of Philip Morris Cos.

The goal is to reach people like Pamela Mayer, vice president of business development at Interactive Video Technologies Inc. in New York. When she decided to seek an advanced degree, she recalls, “Business school wasn’t even on my radar screen. I just was never exposed much to business because my father was a surgeon and my mother had her doctorate in education.” So she went to law school and finally decided to get an M.B.A. five years later.

The Catalyst/Michigan survey also found that among married respondents, women faced much more resistance than men when they asked spouses to relocate for business school. “Even in the year 2009, it’s hard for women to get their husbands to follow them to Bloomington, Ind.,” says Dan Smith, former head of Indiana University’s M.B.A. program, where only about 20% of full-time students are women.

One standout is Columbia Business School, which has gradually boosted its female M.B.A. enrollment to 37% from less than 30% in 1992. Columbia promotes the fact that about 40% of the school’s senior managers are now women, and women are president of many of its student clubs and editor of its Bottom Line newspaper. “This is something that doesn’t take care of itself,” says Meyer Feldberg, dean of Columbia Business School. “You have to be constantly vigilant.”

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3 Comments For This Post

  1. says:

    Interesting article. As a law student I have noticed that the number of women in law school is very close to 50% at most schools. I had no idea there was such a discreptancy for business schools. I am glad to see some of the leading universities as taking steps to rectify this problem.

  2. ansel adams trivia says:

    can anyone still tell the difference between an A and a B school?

  3. College Woman says:

    Women are more and more getting higher education and will outwork, outsmart, and outdo any man out there.

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