October 24, 2023Read More
Recent articles in Fortune and Time highlight that average female enrollment in full-time, in-person graduate business school programs reached an all-time high in the 2021 academic year. Women make up 41% of the 2021 incoming classes across the 56 member schools of the Forté Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for women’s access to management education. This record represents a more than 2% increase from 38.5% a year ago.
Forté Foundation CEO Elissa Sangster notes the numbers show gender parity is finally being reached by MBA programs but also suspects that some of these women are partaking in the Great Resignation. According to Sangster, “a little time of reflection never hurts—time to kind of really stop and think and understand what your priorities are going forward. The pandemic gave that opportunity.” Additionally, she thinks enrollment numbers may have also been higher due to deferred acceptances from 2020, when vaccines were not yet rolled out and the schools of many applicants’ children were still closed.
The Forte Foundation’s ultimate goal is to realize an equal number of men and women enrolled in MBA programs in the next decade at its member schools, which include Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, London Business School and IESE. Three schools really stood out: the George Washington School of Business, Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania and the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School all enrolled more than 50% women. Ten years ago, no schools had 45% or more women enrolled.
However, Sangster says this is just the start; there is much more work to be done. She highlights that only five schools surveyed by Bloomberg Businessweek this year for its Best B-School’s Diversity index have majority female cohorts. Another statistic to support her perspective: less than 10% of S&P 500 CEOs are women. Sangster mentions the importance of building a talent pipeline, which requires early awareness and education, especially when women are still in college. Additional key factors are encouraging women to enter male-dominated majors such as finance and providing women access to resources as they apply to graduate school. She recognizes that boosting women’s enrollment is “the first lever” in helping them reach key leadership roles.
Taking a step back and viewing the bigger picture, she notes that it is common for enrollment to rise during an economic downturn; however, the pandemic brought women more nuanced challenges as they were not simply laid off but were forced to suspend their careers to care for aging relatives or for children suddenly learning at home. These factors necessitate more action from the federal government to pass legislation to make childcare more affordable. Finally, Sangster urges companies to think about how to re-engage or identify other people who can become part of their future leadership pipeline.