How Women are Closing the MBA Program Gap

How Women are Closing the MBA Program Gap

Mandy Sleight picture
Mandy Sleight
Updated April 21, 2021

Since 2015, the number of women working in senior leadership — especially the senior vice president and C-suite roles — has increased, according to the Women in the Workplace 2020 report by McKinsey & Company. Between 2015 and 2016, the representation of female senior VP’s grew from 23% to 26%, while C-suite leadership representation now stand at 21%, compared to 17% in 2015. Though the numbers are encouraging, the “broken rung,” known as the leap from an entry-level job to a manager, is still an obstacle women face in the uphill battle to dismantle the gender pay gap and improve diversity and equality in the workplace.

Even with the disproportionate impact that women have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has not diminished the drive to pursue education. Enrollment figures at over 50 of the top business schools show an average of 39% women registered. With barriers to entry reduced and diversity at the forefront, women seeking advancement through MBA degrees can further reduce the gender pay gap.

What Is Driving More Women To Apply For Business School? 

Several factors are driving more women to apply for business school to further their education and career prospects:

  • MBA versatility: The MBA degree has changed over the years, moving from a singular career trajectory to almost limitless opportunities. Specializations have also provided more options, including marketing, real estate, entrepreneurship, STEM, and other areas. Business schools are also focused on flexibility, offering part-time, full-time, and online options, providing more incentive for women than ever before.
  • Targeted recruitment efforts: Expansion of financial aid, parental-leave policies, hosting women-focused events, and more support systems are a few ways business schools have made the MBA more attainable for women. According to Ally Menzel, Senior Consultant for Stacy Blackman Consulting and former Columbia Business School admissions officer, CBS regularly hosts events in partnership with Columbia Women in Business. Women faculty members are regularly highlighted to show successful women leaders and provide role models for prospective students.
  • Accepting the GRE in place of GMAT: The GMAT is a standardized test specific for business school applicants, while the GRE is the test for the remaining graduate programs. The change to accepting the GRE allows more women, who previously took the GRE and decided to forgo another program, more access to an MBA program, while also having a more comprehensive selection of business schools to choose from.
  • Deferred admissions programs: As the primary caregivers, women are often the planners in the family. Whether the focus is on family, saving money, or gaining valuable work experience, having the option to secure a spot in her preferred MBA program upon graduation with up to five years to enroll, gives many women the opportunity to shift focus without missing out on coveted schools or programs.

As recent gender gap data becomes more encouraging than before, inclusivity and access to more online MBA programs are at the center of the progression. 

  • Creating an inclusive and diverse campus experience: Jordana Blanchet, another Senior Consultant for MBA admissions advisory firm Stacy Blackman Consulting, is the former admissions officer for London Business School (LBS). From highlighting female students and alumni on marketing materials and info sessions to creating women-centric scholarships, to offering nursing facilities on campus, the positive impact has seen an increase in women pursuing their MBA. The 2022 MBA profile for LBS shows of the 532 students currently enrolled, 36% are women.
  • Flexibility and accessibility: Online MBA programs have surged in recent years, with some of the best business schools worldwide offering the option to women and caregivers. Even the more prestigious and traditional schools like Babson College offer online MBAs. Deborah Lee, Founder, and CEO of ed-tech startup Dancing Panda received an MBA from Babson, with a specialization in social entrepreneurship. Working in tech marketing prior to business school, Deborah found herself in junior entry-level roles. After graduation, she moved up to strategy and operation roles before taking the leap into entrepreneurship, “there is no way I would have had the confidence to start my own company if I hadn’t attended Babson for my MBA.”

The Typical MBA Application Timeline 

Applying to an MBA program begins long before documents are submitted. Now that programs accept the GRE instead of the GMAT and faced with increasing deferral admissions, the application process for an MBA is now more competitive than ever.

The process begins with self-reflection to ensure the applicant is choosing the right MBA program and specialization. How it will be financed, why choose an MBA over other programs, when to apply based on the industry, and building a business plan if entrepreneurship is the goal are just a few things to consider before embarking on the MBA application process.

The next step is to gather documents and information to complete your academic profile. If your GPA is not as high as the average score,  creating a compelling essay can help remove entry barriers. Practicing for the GRE or GMAT will help boost scores as well. Then comes selecting the right program, creating a resume, soliciting references, and completing essays.

MBA requirements checklist: 

  • A four-year bachelor degree from an accredited U.S. institution
  • GPA expectations (varies by school and program)
  • 2-3 years of relevant work experience
  • Resume (including work, extracurricular, volunteer, and community activities)
  • Essay (requirements vary by school)
  • Short personal statement
  • References (at least two professional letters of recommendation)
  • GMAT or GRE

Business schools divide MBA application deadlines into three rounds. Round one is due by September or October, round two by January, and round three by mid-April or early May. Each class year is divided by cohorts with quotas, and it is recommended that strong applicants apply in round one when the number of applications is the smallest. Applicants with low GMAT and GRE scores or as part of an overrepresented group may have the advantage in round one than subsequent rounds.

What Is The ROI of an MBA for Women?

It’s estimated that in just four years, an MBA will pay for itself because of career advancement. Within five years of graduation, women see pay increases of 55-65% of their pre-MBA salary, and 85% of graduates feel career advancement was directly due to completing an MBA program.  

Petia Whitmore, prior Dean of Graduate Admissions of Babson College and founder of My MBA Path, has worked in both roles to bring more women to business school. Receiving her MBA allowed her to pivot into executive leadership in a new field, and has been instrumental in launching her own small business venture.

Another successful MBA graduate at 26, Terri Alexander, was able to land a six-figure income upon graduation. Now a successful African American entrepreneur, Terri says her MBA removed many prejudices and made her a more prominent force in the business world.

Scholarships, grants, and financial aid resources 

  • Patsy Mink Foundation: Awarded to low-income women who have children and are pursuing their first master’s degree. Applicants can receive awards up to $5,000 if enrolled in a nonprofit, accredited U.S. institution or program for the 2021-2022 academic year. The application deadline for 2020-2021 has closed, and 2021-2022 will open in the spring of 2021.
  • SIOR Foundation: Women looking to pursue commercial real estate and are a junior or senior undergraduate student enrolled in an accredited U.S. or Canadian business, finance, or real estate program can apply for a $4,000 grant scholarship. Submissions have not yet opened for the 2021-2022 academic year.
  • C200: Women pursuing an MBA as an entrepreneur or corporate leader can apply for scholarships and programs designed to mentor and help women advance through their careers by providing resources and support through a peer community. Women executives or entrepreneurs running successful for-profit businesses can apply for membership with additional benefits.
  • Wynetta A. Frazier Sister-to-Sister Scholarship: African American women pursuing their master’s degree after education interruption due to personal demands or family obligation are encouraged to apply for one of two $500 scholarships to assist with the costs of post-secondary education. Applicants must be at least 21-years-old to apply for the 2022 scholarship.
  • Hispanic Scholarship Fund: Graduating seniors, undergraduate students, community college transfers, and graduate students of Hispanic heritage who meet other eligibility criteria can apply beginning January 1, 2022, for the 2022-2023 school year. Up to 10,000 students are awarded scholarships each year, ranging from $500-$5,000.
  • Live Your Dreams Award: Women who are primary breadwinners for their families can receive up to $16,000 in awards for pursuing their first master’s degree. Previous awardees are not eligible, and references and a personal statement are required to apply. Applications begin August 1 and close on November 15, 2021.

More Balance in Business Schools 

Women looking to advance their careers or branch out into entrepreneurship can continue to remove the broken rung many have faced by pursuing an MBA. The ROI and opportunities presented after graduation have given women the advantage in opening a successful business and paving the way for more senior leadership roles.

Mandy Sleight picture

Mandy Sleight


Mandi Sleight is a contributing writer who covers higher education, online graduate programs, college planning, and more for Grad School Hub. Her writing has also appeared in Kiplinger, MoneyGeek, and The Simple Dollar.

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