If you are a qualified female MBA applicant from India (or any other country) with a competitive profile, you are more likely to get that life changing call from the Admissions Office of an elite business school saying you’ve been accepted into their top ranking MBA program.
It’s a good time for women who want to earn their stripes in business. Business schools, even the hallowed Harvard Business School, are courting young women, like never before.
But don’t pop the champagne just yet. The wooing, elbowing and preening among business schools, to attract female candidates, is born of some depressing statistics. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, fewer Americans are opting for a graduate business degree, resulting in fewer women applying for MBAs as well.
Statistics released by the Graduate Management Admission Council reveal that the number of women applicants opting for a two-year, full-time MBA course hasn’t budged from 34-39 per cent for the last seven years. The numbers for the Top Three business schools are slightly better but nowhere near ideal – women comprise 40, 41 and 42 per cent of MBA programs at the Wharton School, Harvard Business School (HBS) and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, respectively.
This is an alarming reality for business schools, who carefully select their candidates to meet gender, ethnic, nationality and age parameters, among others. The skewed gender ratio is also causing concern in some sections of the corporate world, which just does not have enough women at the top.
As a result, business schools, including the Holy Trinity or Top Three, are dangling bait in front of potential women candidates, by offering special scholarships and grants, lowering the admissions bar, offering networking assistance, and, shockingly, even pitching to high school students. But before we review these and other moves, let’s first look at why women, historically, do not perceive an MBA as an apt career choice while wholeheartedly embracing other rigorous programs such as medicine and law.
Although not as toughened as it used to be, the proverbial glass ceiling is still a brutal reality for women in the global workplace, which is decidedly more equal for men. This attitude clearly reflects in business schools themselves, many of which are still ‘old boy’s clubs’ rather than egalitarian centres of excellence.
Women simply don’t want to deal with this power play on campus, especially when there are other ways to climb the career ladder. Sometimes, driven by resentment at the prospect of their ‘territory’ being ‘trespassed’ by smart, intelligent and ambitious young women, the ‘old boys’ use the only means they know of to stamp their perceived superiority – sexual harassment of female students.
Gender discrimination is not restricted to campus, and as much as we would like to believe we have shed our prejudices, the truth is, gender bias still pervades the workplace. Opportunities to grow, promotions and pay packets are still tilted against women, making many of them wonder whether spending two gruelling years studying for an MBA is worthwhile, after all.
Business schools typically prefer applicants that have four to six years’ work experience post-college. Therefore, students in MBA programs are, typically, in their late 20s or even early 30s, which also happens to be the age when many women want to start a family. For these women, it makes little sense to undergo an expensive and rigorous program and then straightaway have a baby.
At a time when demands at the workplace have come to mean being ‘always on’, dealing with feverish competition and meeting stiffer and stiffer targets, the concept of work-life balance is just a pipe dream. This is a big turn-off for many women, who classically shoulder greater responsibilities relating to home and family than men do.
Business schools are unabashedly rolling out a whole range of incentives and even making changes in their faculty, to position themselves as welcoming environments for women.
Idalene Kesner, dean of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, admits, “We have an issue with numbers. We are all basically trying to attract this same smaller pool of women.”
Many business schools are pitching to undergrad women students, hoping an MBA will soon become an academic goal. So, for instance, the University of Texas at Austin is now offering an undergraduate certificate program in business, with a view to giving undergrads of all majors a foundation in business and an insight into what it takes to pursue career opportunities in this domain. The objective is clear: to entice them to sign up for a full-time MBA when the time is right.
Why, even Harvard Business School organised a PEEK Weekend that, quite literally, gave juniors and seniors from women’s colleges as well as fresh women grads a ‘peek’ into what it is like to acquire an MBA degree. Through class discussions, analysis of real business cases, study groups and workshops, students were given a chance to discuss their ideas while interacting with peers and HBS faculty.
Speaking of catching them young, some business schools took the initiative to a different level. Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business invited high-school girls and their parents to campus to introduce the school’s programs and promote the career prospects for advanced degree-holders in business.
University of Minnesota’s Carlson went a step further and invited high-school juniors and seniors, all girls, to spend an entire week on campus to work on projects that would allow them to sample life as a business student.
Women’s networks are playing an increasingly significant role in targeting female MBA students as they offer their members important connections both for recruitment and career advancement. Genevieve Joyce Lupton, co-president of the Association of Women in Business at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, says the group creates deep connections with MBA recruiters and organisations that support women in business, through women-only events.
Likewise, Lorraine Jonemann, president of the Women’s Business Connection at UCLA Anderson School of Management, reveals that the organisation hosts several events throughout the admissions process, which showcases the club to prospective students. These events include a welcome brunch during the preview weekend, when prospective students visit B School campuses, as well as events organised in collaboration with UCLA Anderson’s admissions department. Jonemann says the idea is to build a community among women MBA candidates even before candidates enroll.
An even more practical bait that can reel in women to MBA programs is to help with special financial aid. B-schools are thus zeroing in on female undergrads with a solid academic record and offering them scholarships and grants that would otherwise have been difficult to secure.
So, for instance, the UK’s Henley Business School has teamed up with the 30% Club, an organisation that’s campaigning to get 30% female board representation, to offer funding through scholarships for women who enroll for its MBA programs. In the US, the George Washington School of Business has doled out more than $1 million in scholarship funding to women candidates in collaboration with Forté Foundation, a non-profit that supports women in business education.
B-schools are typically perceived as a male-dominated domain, and they are finally taking steps to make things ‘friendly’ for female students. Linda Scott, professor at Oxford University’s Said School of Business, says, “There’s a sort of locker-room or boot-camp element to it. There’s not enough attention to things that women can relate to or think is important.”
For instance, she reveals, women participate less often than men in class, and are tentative when they do speak up. Towards this end, HBS has decided to increase the number of woman-centered cases it teaches, while other business schools are toying with inviting more female speakers to campus.
Some of the other measures being taken to entice more female MBA students include pitching a more diverse range of business specialties that would appeal to women; encouraging the development of student organisations that support women business students; hiring full-time female faculty and advisors; connecting female alumni with female students; and even offering evening, weekend and online programs for women who have familial commitments that prevent them from enrolling for a full-time MBA program.
All that you’ve read so far may give you the impression that it’s a cakewalk for female candidates who can simply walk into any program they like without much of a sweat.
That’s not true at all.
Apart from the gender (male-to-female) ratio, business schools have many more aspects to balance as well – their selectivity, the caliber of students, the industry diversity and more. They wouldn’t be at the top if they went overboard with any single parameter.
Don’t let this article disarm you. Do all that you had planned to, and more, in terms of research, preparation and presentation.
At MBA Crystal Ball, our track record of successful conversions for female MBA applicants has been better than for males. Perhaps many of the factors mentioned above helped us to some extent in overcoming some hurdles related to GMAT scores, industry and experience level.
Here’s one such example of a female Indian applicant with a low GMAT score who got into a top European program with a scholarship. And another one about how a female reapplicant got into Ross and Tepper.
If you need a little help in aiming for higher ranking bschools, we can help you punch above your weight (which we’re sure is just right for your age and height!).
On that politically correct note, allow us to sign off.
Pic courtesy: Girish Suryawanshi