How business schools and universities can drive the gender diversity agenda

Women currently represent 36% of European MBA students and 42% of US MBA students.

However, when they enter the business world, they’ll notice just 22% of board members, and 7% of board presidents, are female. 

Are business schools doing enough to push and prioritise gender diversity? For some, the answer is ‘not yet’.

Breaking down enrollment barriers

Without a steady stream of qualified female MBA students, the landscape of senior management is unlikely to change. Some international business schools are working hard to attract more female applicants each academic year.

Barriers begin to form before women even reach enrollment. 29% of women turn down MBA offers because of “financial concerns”, whereas the main reason male applicants rejected offers was because they chose an alternative university. In response, top business schools in China, Singapore, and Europe have launched MBA scholarships exclusively for women, ranging from €8,000 to full tuition costs.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School pairs prospective female students with current female students, funds outreach programmes, and even “hand-write congratulatory postcards to successful female applicants” to invite them to their MBA programme. 44% of Wharton students are female, making them one of the most diverse MBAs in global rankings.

Building the right campus environment

London Business School has cited increasing the number of female applicants as one of its main diversity goals. Currently, 39% of LBS MBA students are women, but 52% of the school’s senior management are women, so their initiatives are informed by first-hand experiences. 

LBS regularly hosts female speakers, and its Women in Business Club is one of the largest on campus. Many of their female alumni have gone on to become CEOs, company presidents, and found their own startups.

The power of donors, awards, and mentorship

As educators and enablers, MBA programmes and universities need to focus on improving gender diversity beyond their programmes and within businesses.

One university taking this particularly seriously is international business school INSEAD. Ninety-eight percent of INSEAD alumni have mentored other women – including 89% of male graduates. 69% enable other female leaders within their own organisations, and 91% are heavily invested in increasing the representation of women in business leadership generally.

INSEAD graduate Helen Pitcher OBE is now the Chairperson of Advancing Boardroom Excellence, and committed to mentoring other women in business. “I have been supported and challenged by mentors – both female and male – at key points in my career, and it’s important for me to pass this on.”

Developing connections

A 1994 study published in the Academy of Management Journal found “career development for women is tied more to attachment and relationships”. Whether this is true for everyone or not, building connections is essential when it comes to reaching senior leadership positions.

71% of Fortune 500 companies in the US have mentoring programmes, but networking groups with women from different sectors can sometimes be more valuable. Having access to a group of other professional women can create new employment opportunities, help women negotiate pay increases, and trade skills when they create their own businesses and brands.

For company founder and CFO Sophie Eisenmann, who finished her MBA in 2009, “Studying, working and sharing my life with so many amazing and inspiring fellow students helped trigger my decision to become an entrepreneur. INSEAD gave me a network and credentials that opened up doors.”

Driving the gender diversity agenda through education

Some business schools nurture their environment, some prioritise diverse admissions strategies, and others develop valuable scholarships and awards. The most successful focus on all three.

In 2017, the European commission pushed for company boards with more than 60% male members to prioritise recruiting more women. If MBA programmes and universities are determined to produce even more savvy, skilled, and determined female graduates, parity surely can’t be far away.

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