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Women Catch Up With Men at More Top Business Schools

No, I do not feel threatened by this or the ghost of Helen Reddy.

Women Catch Up With Men at More Top Business Schools

Record number of major M.B.A. programs have at least 50% female enrollment

By Lindsay Ellis, WSJ

Nov. 2, 2023 12:01 am ET

George Washington University encourages female M.B.A. students to talk about their experiences to applicants. PHOTO: ROSEMARIE MOSTELLER/ALAMY

Women now make up at least half of full-time M.B.A. students at five top business schools, the most to reach that milestone in a given year, new data show.

The rising share of female M.B.A. candidates reflects business schools’ concerted efforts to recruit more women in recent years. Full-time M.B.A. programs at Penn State University and the University of Oxford hit parity for the first time this academic year. They join those at George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania, according to the Forté Foundation, a nonprofit focused on advancing women into leadership roles via access to business education.

Overall, women represent 42% of full-time M.B.A. students at the foundation’s partner schools, which include more than 50 of the top schools in the U.S., Canada and Europe. That is up from 33% a decade ago.

Women have earned the majority of bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. since the early 1980s. Female representation in M.B.A. programs has lagged behind, though, even as women made up bigger numbers in other graduate disciplines including medicine and law. The first of Forté’s partner business schools to enroll more women than men in a full-time M.B.A. program was the University of Southern California in 2018, according to the foundation. Three years later, Wharton became the first elite school to reach that benchmark.

Business schools have worked deliberately for years to bolster their pipelines of female applicants, said Elissa Sangster, the foundation’s chief executive. As conduits to the fast track in tech, Wall Street and other parts of the business world, M.B.A.s are seen as a key tool in getting more women into high-paying leadership roles at major companies. Many schools are eager to show they can graduate enough top female talent to satisfy employer demand and help boost the number of women in the upper ranks of corporate management.

“The 50-50 is representative of a pathway into business leadership,” Sangster said. “If we don’t see women having equal access to those opportunities, that means they don’t get that education, they don’t get that job post-M.B.A., they don’t get that salary.” Women run about 10% of Fortune 500 companies, still a fraction but double the share of female CEOs five years ago.

Targeted scholarships have helped, she says. So have stepped-up efforts to promote the value of an M.B.A. degree to undergraduates and recruit current students to call female applicants to offer advice and share stories.

Shrijana Khanal, 24, enrolled at Johns Hopkins’s Carey Business School as a dual-degree M.B.A. student this fall hoping to one day be an entrepreneur. She is banking on the M.B.A. to help her break into leadership roles and is interested in working in consulting.

On campus, Khanal has noticed that she feels at ease in class—unlike in her undergraduate economics major and at her first job, where there were far more men than women. At Carey, 51% of first-year students are female this year, about the same as last year, according to the school.

Shrijana Khanal, an M.B.A. student at Johns Hopkins, hopes to one day be an entrepreneur. PHOTO: MICHAEL PLACANCIA

“I feel a sense of being able to speak my mind without fear of impostor syndrome in my classes, which is a new feeling for me,” she said. “It just feels natural—this is how it’s supposed to be.”

Two of the five programs to hit 50% women’s enrollment this year—Penn State’s Smeal College of Business and Oxford’s Saïd Business School—have one-year full-time M.B.A.s. rather than two-year programs. Officials at both schools say the shorter time commitment appeals to women, especially those who may have family caretaking obligations.

Half of the students in Smeal’s new one-year M.B.A. are women, up from 38% in the final year of the two-year M.B.A., said Joy Mack, who directs admissions for the degree. The shift means that in small presentation and homework groups, there are roughly equal numbers of women and men, Mack said.

“Having diversity of thought in a class is going to better prepare the entire cohort for the workforce” because such an atmosphere better reflects workplaces, Mack said. It also better prepares them to understand consumer markets.

The George Washington University School of Business, at 65%, had the highest share of female enrollment, Forté’s data show. The school has encouraged female students to talk about their experiences to applicants, said Vanessa Perry, who leads strategic initiatives for the business school.

A group of prospective M.B.A. students came to GW’s campus on Saturday for an open house. In a campus classroom, Perry, who is also a management professor, delivered a lecture on artificial intelligence, and she looked out at those gathered to see a mostly female audience.

“I’ve been here for 22 years, and still to this day when I go into an M.B.A. classroom, and there’s that proportion of women, it still is a surprise,” she said.

Write to Lindsay Ellis at

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