Hear My Roar

Unlike other graduate programs, MBA programs do not accurately represent the make-up of the US population, where women represent more than 50% of US citizens. Medical and law schools are far ahead of business schools with a male to female ratio close to 50/50. The University of Michigan Medical School’s female enrollment in 2001 was 46% and 43% in 2002. The Michigan Law School’s female enrollment was 42% in the 2004 and 2005 classes, increasing to 49.5% in the 2006 class. Compared to those schools, the Michigan Business School’s numbers are miniscule: 28% in the Day 2003 and 2004 classes, 24% in the Day 2005 class, and even fewer women in the Evening program with female attendance at 22% in the 2001 incoming class and 19% for 2002. The numbers themselves are intimidating; but what do they really say about women and business?

When asked about the reasons for the low level of women in MBA programs, female MBA students consistently responded with similar explanations. The importance of strong quantitative skills is stressed even before entering the MBA program. Quantitative GMAT scores and the calculus prerequisite are intimidating for many women. Once in an MBA program, women are surrounded by students with heavy quantitative backgrounds, evidenced by the high concentration of male engineers in MBA programs. The fear women have about their mathematic skills stems from perception and not reality. Women are in fact better at math than they believe. The only thing women lack is confidence. Research has shown that girls are better at math than boys in elementary school. Boys begin to slightly surpass girls in high school and college.

However, the difference is negligible. Taken as a whole, research does not support the belief that men are better at math than women. In fact, a recent study by Brown University tested the math skills of men and women in single-sex groups. Women performed as much as 12% higher on math tests when men were not in the room. As the number of men in the room increased, accuracy on math tests decreased, going as low as 58% when men outnumbered women in the room. Being outnumbered may remind women of the stereotype that men are better at math than women. The male to female ratio in the testing situations never affected the men’s ability; they consistently registered about 67% accuracy on the math tests. Unfortunately, real-life testing situations will not be altered to accommodate single-sex groups. Instead, women must regain confidence in their quantitative skills in order to perform well in any situation.

Along with the fear of integrals is the stark reality of family life. At top business schools, such as Michigan, there is a strong recommendation or requirement that an applicant have a minimum of two years work experience. Due to the emphasis on work experience, MBA programs often seem to select candidates with a substantial length of time in the workforce. The average age of students in Michigan’s Day MBA program is 28 with average work experience of 5 years. The average age of students in Michigan’s Evening MBA program is 30 with average work experience of 6 years. This begins to put women at an age when they want to begin a family or are already in the middle of growing one. It is certainly difficult for a man to simultaneously attend school and be an active father, but imagine being a woman, especially an Evening student, and having to sit through three-hour classes while pregnant. Fortunately, it seems that some schools are beginning to accept more applicants with two or three years work experience, staying on the minimum-side of their own guidelines. Hopefully this trend will continue to grow in order to accommodate more women.

Once an MBA is earned, then what? The business world lacks female role models who demonstrate that a fulfilling career and a fulfilling family life are possible. So, why bother with an MBA? I look at my own company and there are two women in executive positions who I can look up to: one is an older woman with grown children, and the other is younger and does not plan on having children. Yes, it is difficult to find this balance – but not impossible! I have met many women through UMBS functions that have successfully achieved this work/life balance. We need to see and hear more about these women who have succeeded at being a mother, partner, and businesswoman.

Based on Catalyst’s 2002 study, Women and the MBA: Gateway to Opportunity, women have enjoyed their time in MBA programs and have found them fulfilling. But is this fact advertised enough to potential applicants? Risking what might sound like an oversimplification, I think it’s up to universities and colleges, businesses, alumnae, and society to increase the number of women in top MBA programs across the United States. Schools and businesses should seek out women that would benefit from an MBA program and encourage them to attend. Women should be targeted with direct-marketing campaigns to enroll in top business schools and should be groomed for management just like their male counterparts. Alumnae need to be vocal to surrounding women about their experiences in the MBA program and their ability to balance a personal life with school and work. It is easier for women to attempt the personal and professional life balance knowing that those who have come before them have achieved success. Finally, although a path in life can be changed, girls are sometimes put on a different path from boys early in life. Society needs to help encourage young girls to enjoy and be confident in math at an early age, continuing through high school. Progress has been stagnant over the last decade with female enrollment in MBA programs consistently under 30%. But the time is ripe for change. Current MBA programs might be male dominated, but with women making up the majority of the US population, change will soon be coming.