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home : Grad School : Staying In :

Women on the Verge

The gender gap is shrinking, the glass ceiling is showing some cracks. Women are enjoying an era of almost complete equality. So why are business schools still overwhelmingly male?


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A fabulous education, great networking opportunities, a $131,000 starting salary, and a male-female ratio of three to one-with perks like these, women should be racing to enter business school. It sounds like an incredible package. The trouble is, women aren't buying it. Law and medical schools, even engineering programs, are seeing a rise in female students, but the number of women in MBA programs has lingered around 30 percent for a decade.

To investigate, Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization devoted to promoting professional women, and the University of Michigan Business School joined forces to produce "Women and the MBA: Gateway to Opportunity," a 74-page report that examines why the percentage of women seeking MBAs has remained static for so long.

"We did the study because it is key to our mission," says Dr. Katherine Giscombe, senior director at Catalyst, who has directed the project since 1998. "We want to see more women in high-level positions, and companies look to MBA programs for future leaders." With unemployment at an all-time low, she points out, corporations searching for talent will suffer if half the population remains overlooked.

"The biggest surprise was the incredible satisfaction level women reported," says Jeane Wilt, assistant dean at Michigan and lead writer of the report. "Ninety-five percent were 'somewhat satisfied.'"

Catherine Jaccodine, Columbia Business School '99, general manager at gURL.com, can't imagine a bad B-school experience. She gushes, "It is the best investment I have made to date." Not only did she learn a ton in the classroom, but she also took advantage of the diverse student body. "Business school is a very open environment. My classmates were all extremely smart, but they had done crazy stuff. I had a ballerina in one class, a zookeeper in another, and a nightclub owner became one of my best friends."

Even more striking, only 27 percent of female MBAs thought business schools were overly competitive. But 20 percent of men did, too. These findings challenged Wilt's belief that women experience business school very differently than their male peers do. Seventy percent of women say they experience no difficulty making points during class. This number is lower than the 82 percent of men but is still quite high.

The catch, however, is that all the respondents were women who had enrolled in MBA programs. Why are so many others wary of B-school?

The Investment Banker Myth

It's no secret that women are not encouraged to develop their quantitative skills. Forty-five percent of respondents in the Catalyst study cited lack of confidence in mathematic ability as a reason women do not pursue an MBA. Add to that the many women who imagine business school classrooms to be wall-to-wall investment bankers, and the result is many prospective female business students, fearful of alpha quant jocks, reluctant to enter the fray.

Trent Anderson, vice president at Kaplan, the leading GMAT prep course, is interested in the fears female candidates express. "We have found women do not attach the same value to the MBA as the JD or Ph.D. They link it to consulting or banking and do not see a rewarding career path."

Emily Stauffer, a second-year at Berkeley's Haas School, agrees. Business school initially turned her off because she perceived it to be a stuffy environment. She now encourages potential female MBAs to change this atmosphere. "Breaking the stereotype that we're a bunch of guys in khaki pants and blue shirts will happen when my peers and I reach out," Stauffer says.

Schools can do their part, too. Mary Miller, associate dean at NYU's Stern School, is very positive about the use of teamwork. "We require a quantitative curriculum, but we assign students study teams," she says. This way, Miller explains, students, regardless of gender, become part of a mixed group and feel more at ease with their course work.

Family Time

Balancing life and work is an issue everyone can relate to, but it particularly stings women who want to get on the business world's fast track. "They wonder, if you're working 70 hours per week, what else do you have time to do?" explains Michigan's Wilt. The hefty job-experience requirement for potential MBAs coincides almost directly with many female candidates' child-rearing years.

Some schools are hoping to attract more women by lowering the age bar (the average age of B-school students is 29), but Wilt fears that this policy will insult women who want to be held to the same standard as men. Instead, for women to reconcile succeeding in business with having a family, Catalyst's Giscombe says, "businesses and schools have to work together."

Wilt explains, "The model of 40-plus hours per week without interruption is a male model. It is a system set up to serve only one part of the population. That's discrimination, which is against the law." She thinks women who want to attend business school need to know that corporations are changing. Just as women battled for flextime in the early '70s, women today can lead the way in establishing workweeks that are realistic for women with families.

"And," Wilt continues, "a woman who wants to take a break and have children should know an MBA will help when she is ready to come back to work." Since starting her job at Health Media, Patti Glaza, Michigan '00, has noticed a trend of older women coming back to work who seem to have more time to focus. Glaza says, "If you slow down and get off the fast track, do freelancing or consulting," Glaza says, "you can have kids and success."

Entrepreneurship is another option for women who want more flexibility. Women don't need MBAs to get started, but Marianne Danko, Cornell's Johnson School '99 says, "A woman business owner without an MBA won't have the network I got from business school." In spite of the more than 9 million women-owned businesses flourishing today, only about 4 percent of venture capital goes to female entrepreneurs. Maybe that number would rise if more women business owners were also MBAs, Danko surmises.

Role Models Are Missing

If a woman can't imagine a world where women's issues matter, she won't be motivated to become a business leader. Fifty-six percent of Catalyst's respondents say a lack of female role models is why women aren't going to business school. The top strategy Catalyst recommends to schools and corporations is to increase the visibility of successful women in business. In the corporate world, only 12.5 percent of Fortune 500 company board members are women. In business schools, only 7 percent of deans are women.

"I got an MBA when I didn't see any females," says Dr. Myra Hart, professor of management at Harvard Business School and an '81 HBS grad. "It kept me from learning about different management styles." After co-founding Staples and acting as group vice president of growth and development for five years, Hart returned to Harvard, and was thrilled to see the increased matriculation of women MBAs.

She leads a project, funded by the Committee of 200 (a 15-year-old group of women entrepreneurs and executives ranging from the publisher of Esquire to the CEO of Playboy Enterprises to the president of Salvatore Ferragamo), whose mission is to incorporate more female protagonists in case studies. "It is a matter of learning problem-solving from a woman's perspective," says Hart.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Tidball's research in Taking Women Seriously (Oryx, 1999), a shortage of female professors at any level is a serious problem. She demonstrates that the greatest predictor of a woman's success is the number of women on her undergraduate institution's faculty.

Associate Dean Miller says Stern is taking on this issue by recruiting more female faculty at every level in the business school. Coincidentally, the school's female enrollment level has run counter to the norm, increasing every year. This year, Stern's first-year class is 39 percent female. Other schools, like Michigan, Berkeley, and Columbia, are trying to keep up by actively seeking women to sign on, too.

As Carolyn Cooney, Duke's Fuqua School of Business '96, points out, "It's a catch-22. More women need to obtain MBAs before role models in the business community emerge." She thinks schools should get the process moving by leveraging their alumnae. "The problem is, women don't get to talk to other women in the corporate world who are proud of their alma mater. Men talk it up."

A Business School of Their Own

A band of "girl gangs" is poised for action. Women's groups on B-school campuses find ways to reimagine business from the women's perspective by addressing work-life balance, listening to one another's creative ambitions, seeking out inspirational speakers, and becoming role models for girls.

"One misconception about women's groups is that they get together and bitch," says Glaza, who was president of Michigan Business Women in her B-school days. "There is no male bashing. You're just more powerful when you know you're not the first person to have faced your dilemmas."

Ninety-nine percent of women at Haas, the only top business school with a female dean, belong to its Women in Leadership group. President Alyssa Farber, class of '01, says, "We're still 30 percent of the student body, but when you take the men out, it's like, this feels different.

"One of the things that brought me to Haas was the WIL retreat" Farber adds. "The entire class, alumnae, and faculty go wine tasting in Napa Valley, hiking, biking, and horseback riding." For her, it's great to address women's fears about business school, but giving women at business school time to link up and learn from one another while having fun is crucial. "We are also learning about leadership by organizing these events," she says.

Perhaps nobody knows the value of a female community at business school better than Pat O'Brien, dean at Simmons Graduate School of Management, the only all-women MBA program. Simmons's faculty is 60 percent women, the majority of case studies are female-centric, and enrollment is climbing steadily. Though the program is unaccredited, its class size has risen 25 percent in the last five years.

"Women don't get their money's worth at other schools," O'Brien says. "They pay the same amount as men but are more reticent to throw themselves into everyday behavior. Here, no one is categorized as different because of gender. Sexual politics are gone. Our students go back to organizations more prepared to cope because we give them skills to work with men who manage differently. "Some students say they applied to a number of schools but weren't excited until they sat in on our classes. Others say they wouldn't go to a standard school, because they are less interesting and creative."

What does Simmons's success point to? Yes, women will lose two years of earning and find themselves ready for children just as they get their degrees. Indeed, women are desperate for role models. But perhaps, as much as any reason cited by Catalyst's study, more women are not going to business school because they are unable to see their way of thinking and bonding thrive in those vaunted hallways. Ninety-five percent of female MBAs express satisfaction with their business school experience, yet their peers still hesitate to apply.

The good news is they are hesitating less and less. When Simmons opened its doors 25 years ago, only 6 percent of business school students were women. Today that number has increased five fold. Twenty-five years from now, as reports like "Gateway to Opportunity" raise awareness, this number will surely climb even further as B-school hallways become increasingly gender-balanced.


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