Why Are Business Schools Still Struggling to Recruit Women?

Researchers say there’s still a long way to go before MBA programs have caught up to what women want and need.

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Jan 15 2019, 7:25pm

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Canada’s top business schools, despite decades of recruitment efforts, are still struggling to attract women to MBA programs. In a world where MBAs remain the fastest ticket to prestigious jobs in major corporations, Canada’s top-ranked business schools are feeling the heat to improve gender diversity in the classroom. In exchange for tuition that can go higher than $100,000, these schools provide students with a respected education and confer access to their prestigious alumni networks.

Women make up almost half of the Canadian workforce but are drastically outnumbered by men in senior business roles. In a recent report on gender and gender pay gaps at the highest ranks of corporate Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that only 10 percent of senior executives are women. The report also found that for those very few women who do make it to the top, they are paid $0.68 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make—the equivalent of $950,000 less per year.

With a growing body of research showing a correlation between a company’s financial performance and gender and racial diversity at the top, investors are pushing Canada’s publicly-traded companies to hire more women in leadership roles. As important pipelines for future senior executives, business schools are under pressure to do better.

In the 1990s, with women accounting for only 25 percent of MBA students, Canada’s business schools began ramping up efforts to attract more female students. They started putting more photos of women in their MBA marketing materials. They organized women-only recruiting events and had some success.

In 2016, 45 percent of GMAT test takers were women—a test required for admission to business school. But women are not 45 percent of the student body in Canada’s top-ranked business schools.

A recent report from Forté Foundation, a consortium of businesses and business schools dedicated to improving gender representation, found that member schools averaged 38 percent women in MBA programs. Four of those schools are Canadian and only York University’s Schulich gets a special shout-out for having 40 percent women students.

The other Forté schools in Canada are Ivey (Western), Smith (Queen’s) and Rotman (Toronto). If 40 percent is the benchmark this year, the others are not doing so well. Ivey has 31 percent women in their full-time MBA, while Smith has 36% for the class of 2019. Rotman slipped from 40 percent last year to 36 percent this year.

With law (54 percent of lawyers under 35 are women) and medicine (56 percent women in 2016/17) seeing men and women graduating in equal numbers, business schools have fallen behind.

Researchers looking at this gender gap caution against blaming women for being too risk-averse for business school, or lacking self confidence. Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said that “we don’t need to train women to be more confident. We need to train organizations to be more inclusive.”

In Kaplan’s research, women do the same cost-benefit analysis as men in assessing the opportunity cost of an MBA. Women like Alison Zimmer, an MBA candidate at Rotman, see the MBA as giving them, “ammo against (gender) barriers.” At the same time Zimmer recognizes that with a starting salary after graduation that will likely be lower than her male peers, she has a bigger financial risk.

In a 2017 study of 17,500 MBA graduates, Tackling the MBA Gender Pay Gap,

Forbes found that among men and women graduating from the top-ranked business schools, men make on average 22 percent more than their female peers.

Zimmer represents the millennial generation of women shaking things up. Like others interviewed for this article, Zimmer is frustrated with work-life balance messages from B-schools to women considering an MBA. Zimmer believes talk of “having it all” is usually code for assigning all responsibility for family and career success to women.

Zimmer and her millennial cohort are challenging the ‘old boys club’ culture at business schools and making the schools work harder to be relevant to women. In Zimmer’s Rotman class, neither men nor women see family concerns as a “lower-status” women’s issue. “We are talking more about fatherhood and business,” she said.

For Alicia Riolino, also a Rotman MBA student, having a better balance of men and women in the classroom is important to opening the opportunity to learn from each other. She said, “If you are only learning from people who look like you, it diminishes your learning.”

According to both Zimmer and Riolino, there is still a long way to go before business schools have caught up to what women want and need.

Coming from the film industry, Zimmer wanted fluency in business language, the skills the MBA teaches, and the network she would gain. The Rotman alumni network was key for Zimmer’s decision despite Rotman’s reputation as the most expensive business school in Canada. “It’s not just the class, it’s the alumni network,” she said.

Alicia Riolino, another Rotman MBA candidate, considered her undergraduate degree in economics as, “solid but missing the greater vocabulary of management,” she said in a recent interview.

“I am looking for more freedom and the ability to move around in my career,” she said, something missing from her pre-MBA job.

Forté, founded in 2001, works to increase women’s enrollment in business schools with scholarships, matching prospective students with mentors they can relate to and combating the messages that liberal arts undergrads don’t have the right education––economics, accounting or engineering––needed for business school.

“Shifting the landscape for women in MBA takes time,” said Elissa Sangster, CEO of Texas-based Forté Foundation. Change requires a dramatic culture shift at business schools that includes students, alumni, career services, the dean’s office, corporate partners and parents of future females MBAs.

“The schools that embrace innovation in gender approaches and have the corporate, faculty and alumni invested are seeing the greatest success,” said Sangster.

The business schools are making changes that address other problems for women such as making a work experience requirement more flexible. According to Kaplan, students start medical and law school straight out of undergraduate making those programs more appealing to women considering children in their late 20s and 30s after they graduate. Some schools including Rotman and the US-based Wharton School have dropped work experience altogether.

Women also want to see themselves reflected in the faculty and the curriculum. Schools such as Schulich, Rotman and Smith are starting to appoint more women to faculty positions and to teach more case studies of women-led businesses.

With MBA enrollment flattening overall, the incentive to recruit more women is growing and will accelerate the changes business schools make to be more female-friendly.

The lesson on gender diversity for business schools is the same one motivating businesses to champion equal career opportunities for women. Zimmer believes that in order to be competitive, the gender and racial diversity of a business’ management team must reflect their customers. And with tuition at $100,000 per MBA student, business schools are learning that they have to be more competitive if they want more women in the MBA classroom.

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Susanne Courtney is a 2019 Global Journalism fellow at University of Toronto’s Munk School.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Smith had 31% female students. In fact, they are at 36%.