In the last couple of years, there has been a steady rise of women breaking the glass ceiling and assuming leadership roles of some of America’s largest corporations. In 2012, Fortune magazine announced that women CEOs set a record by taking more than 20 spots on the Fortune 500 list, including Marissa Mayer, president and CEO of Yahoo! — who took the No. 1 spot on the “40 Under 40” list this year; Indra Nooyi, chief executive officer of PepsiCo; Ginni Rometty, chair and CEO of IBM; and Ursula Burns, chair and chief executive officer of Xerox.
As more professional women continue to slowly but surely break down barriers in the traditionally male-dominated C-suite, news of their accomplishments has initiated conversations about attracting more females into the business world, particularly as it pertains to their enrollment in business schools.
“Having positive role models is inspiring for women as they consider pursuing their M.B.A.,” says Zoe Hillenmeyer, a Washington University M.B.A. grad and senior consultant at IBM. “But it’s more than just that — it is critical for helping curb unintentional bias and categorical thinking, meaning when we see more women at the top, men and women are going to experience the subtle, slow adjustment that women can lead as well as men.”
Joe Fox, associate dean and director of M.B.A. programs at Washington University’s Olin Business School, argues that not only are prominent female leaders impelling a new level of awareness among the public, but they are also, in turn, creating new paths in the traditionally male-dominated business school environment.
“Back in the 1950s, ’60s, and on into the ’70s, there weren’t that many great career paths, role models and icons in the world of business and management that were like other women, or that were other women for that matter,” explains Fox. “And it was much more likely that you would find role models and icons in medicine, science or law, and so they had a step up in those fields.”
Recent surveys suggest that the gender gap is starting to close at M.B.A. programs all across the country. Last month, a Graduate Management Admissions Council 2013 trends survey revealed that more than 53 percent of master in management programs saw an increase of female applicants, while application numbers for men only grew at 43 percent of schools. The number of women taking the GMAT has increased from roughly 85,000 a year in 2003 to about 123,000 in 2012.
In the last four years, the number of women taking the GMAT has consistently topped 100,000, breaking records and inching ever closer to the roughly 164,000 men who took the entrance exam last year. A boost in test takers has meant a boost in candidates and the quality of applications. This is a trend Fox has seen at his own school, with a jump in female enrollment of about 10 percent in the last decade.
Nsombi Ricketts, chair of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Business, has seen gains across the board at many different schools.
“Wharton [School of the University of Pennsylvania] and Harvard [University] have made significant progress in this area with record breaking enrollments of women in recent years,” says Ricketts, “and many other schools are working hard to increase the number of female M.B.A. students.”
Babson College, Duke University’s Fuqua School and Emory University’s Goizueta School have all had nearly 40 percent female enrollment in recent years, according to a Businessweek article. Elissa Sangster, executive director of the Forté Foundation, a nonprofit consortium that works with companies and business schools to promote women in leadership roles, adds Northwestern University’s Kellogg School to the list of business schools with an increase in female enrollment, noting the program, like many others, has undertaken specific efforts to achieve this.
“They actually go out into their community, and they bring in women of all kinds of professions, and they talk about building your leadership skills,” explains Sangster. “Then, they leverage that program as a pipeline program if you might be interested in going back full time. So there is creative outreach in that way.”
Fox agrees that one-on-one experiences seem to work best in recruiting and retaining female M.B.A. candidates.
“I would say that the single most important factor in [the] growth in size and quality of our women population has been our students,” he says. “The students that we have drawn here have opened up the door and have helped recruit the class that comes behind them. Some alums and current students have taken it as part of a charge to make a great investment in the group that comes behind them.”
Fox adds that it’s also important for potential female M.B.A. candidates to not only hear how great a program is, but to hear that women are getting great jobs after the program. In an academic environment that focuses so much on building a career network, having relatable predecessors is key.
“When they see that women are coming into leadership roles — whether it’s as president of the student body … or being recognized by Forté as the national student of the year like Zoe Hillenmeyer — they see this is a place where women can not just succeed but they can really soar,” says Fox.
Helping hands Though many elite programs have struggled with the vestiges of being a “good ol’ boys club” and the stereotypes associated with it, Fox says that other schools have a leg up in recruiting female candidates because of this.
“Maybe there is an advantage to not being the top-ranked school or one that thinks it’s the best in the country,” he notes. “A lack of pretentiousness about our students is really appealing and helps sets the tone and environment in a way that some other cultures or environments simply might not be able to.
“Still,” continues Fox, “we are not perfect, and there are issues, but I can tell you I don’t see, hear or get feedback that it’s harder for women to fit in than a guy who says I don’t seem to be fitting it.”
At Cornell, Ricketts has worked on a number of initiatives to help female students better adjust to business school. The ODI hosts an annual Johnson Women in Business two-day recruiting event where JP Morgan sponsors a lunch between prospective students and a female executive. In November, Cornell will launch its first annual Women’s Leadership Conference as part of the Johnson Women in Business event. Cornell also stages social events once a semester with students who are part of the Forté Foundation’s Fellowship Program.
In addition, Ricketts’ office has partnered with the Johnson School’s Women’s Management Council to host a brunch for accepted female students and will be starting a technology forum next March at Cornell’s new New York City tech campus. Her school’s admissions office has also begun a series of events to discuss women’s work-life balance and graduate education issues. Overall, Ricketts says female M.B.A. candidates tend to thrive in environments that offer flexibility and mentorship programs.
Despite promising gains in application numbers, qualified candidates, and more effective recruitment and retention strategies at individual schools, Fox says boosting the ranks of female business leaders even further will continue to be a collaborative effort.
“To address the issue fully is going to take the whole marketplace talking about the issue,” he says. “One school can’t change it. One group of current students can’t change it. One CEO at one company can’t change it. But when the broader set of people … are having similar conversations, it starts to build a crescendo then.”