Claire Vassie, student at London Business School.
Inclusive choice: Claire Vassie chose London Business School partly on the strength of its diversity © Charlie Bibby

Claire Vassie looked closely at business schools’ diversity when she decided to leave her job as a doctor to study for an MBA. Different viewpoints have always been important to her: while she trained as a physician, she ran a student organisation focused on increasing diversity in medicine.

London Business School’s diverse, global student body stood out to Vassie, 27, who hopes to pair her clinical knowledge with a business school education to work in healthcare and pharmaceuticals. It was a visit to the LBS campus, where she heard about the school’s drive for gender inclusivity, that finalised her decision.

At a women in business brunch, Vassie was impressed by the students and alumni she met. She was awarded the Lloyds scholarship, one of the merit scholarships LBS reserves for female applicants, and started her MBA in 2017.

“There’s a whole portfolio of scholarships for women, which in my mind showed that they were very dedicated to more female students,” Vassie says. “There was definitely that drive there to increase the number of women and have these future female leaders in the pipeline.”

Women’s events and fellowships are two tools among many that schools use to achieve better gender balance. In 2016, the Graduate Management Admission Council found women made up only 37 per cent of applications to full-time two-year MBAs globally, although more women than men now graduate with university degrees in the US and most of Europe. 

Some top business schools, particularly in the US, have been more successful. Women make up an average 42 per cent of MBA students at the top 10 US business schools in the FT’s 2018 ranking. That average falls to 36 per cent for the top 10 European schools and 34 per cent for Asia. Financial concerns are the number one barrier preventing women from accepting business school offers, cited by 29 per cent globally and 38 per cent in the US, according to a GMAC survey. By contrast, the biggest reason men did not accept an offer was that they were waiting for another. 

Women’s greater financial concerns stem in part from the fact that students are expected to have work experience for most full-time MBAs. In the years between university and an MBA, women are more likely to work in lower-paying sectors and the gender pay gap means some may be on lower salaries. That global gender gap may in part account for the greater imbalance at top European schools, which draw more international students.

“It’s the one challenge we have from having an extremely global applicant pool,” says David Simpson, admissions director of the MBA programme at LBS, where more than 90 per cent of students are from outside the UK. “There isn’t gender equality in the business world around the globe.”

At LBS 39 per cent of MBA students are women, while the average for FT-ranked programmes is 37 per cent — but differences globally and for unranked schools mean the worldwide figure would be lower. One way LBS helps remedy this is through the fellowships it offers women. 

“Often when we source new awards, we are talking to potential donors about scholarships for women,” says Simpson. “That’s what a lot of our corporate and alumni donors are interested in anyway because most people see the issue of getting talented women into the pipeline to lead organisations as crucial to addressing a global imbalance.”

In the US, while the top-ranked schools achieved above a 60-40 male-female split, women accounted for an average of 37 per cent of applications to two-year full-time MBAs nationwide in 2016, according to GMAC, in line with the global figure.

Full-time MBA scholarships for women only — offered by some business schools for the 2018 intake starting from July (ordered by country)

SchoolCountryScholarship nameScholarship valueNumber of scholarshipsTuition 2018
CeibsChinaWomen Leadership ScholarshipRmb200,000FiveRmb400,800
InseadFranceInsead Women's scholarship€25,000Several€82, 000
HEC ParisFranceForté Foundation for women candidates*Up to €8,000Six€66,000
CUHK Business SchoolHong KongWomen in Global Business ScholarshipHK$275,000 (full tuition)OneHK$275,000
SDA BocconiItalyPartial Tuition Waiver Women 70%€36,400One€52,000
Nanyang Business SchoolSingaporeNanyang Women in Business ScholarshipUp to S$24,800Up to 20S$62,000
Iese Business SchoolSpainIese Trust Forté Foundation Scholarship for Women with children, and for Women from developing countries (two awards)€60,000Varies€88,150
EsadeSpainThe Esade Women of the World Scholarship€20,000Varies€64,900
IMDSwitzerlandNestlé Scholarship for WomenSFr25,000 / $26,000OneSFr65,000/$67,500
London Business SchoolUKThe MBA 50th Anniversary Scholarship for Women£78,500 (full tuition) + other feesSeveral£78,500
University of Oxford: SaïdUKForté Foundation Fellowships£15,000Two£55,000
Alliance Manchester Business SchoolUK30% Club Scholarship£43,000 (full tuition)One£43,000

Footnotes: * Can be combined with the HEC Paris MBA Scholarship for Excellence (open to men and women) — worth up to €33,000

“A lot of schools like ours that are located in college towns sometimes face a little bit of a greater hurdle,” says Idie Kesner, dean of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “If women have a significant other or a spouse, the employment opportunities may be less for their [partner] in a smaller town than in a large city.”

Like LBS, Kelley hosts events for prospective female students, pairs them with current students and alumni and offers scholarships. Both schools offer fellowships from the Forté Foundation, a non-profit group that works to boost the number of women in business and which has awarded more than $142m to 6,300 Forté fellows since 2003. 

Other schools focus less on scholarships for women than recruitment strategy. “What’s most important is making sure that this is a place where women thrive and that this is a place that, whatever their aspirations are, we try to make sure they feel connected to the community,” says Maryellen Reilly, deputy vice-dean of the MBA programme at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School (see below). 

Schools are working to foster connections between prospective and current female students and faculty, but admissions officers agree that effective recruitment starts with a good student experience.

“One of the ways we’re attracting women to Kellogg is that [we have] made material investments in the programming and student experience over the last handful of years,” said Kate Smith, assistant dean of admissions at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “Our current students are educating prospective students on the robust opportunities to grow and develop here.”

Changes include women’s leadership seminars and the appointment of a director of women’s leadership courses. 

That momentum is a “virtuous cycle”, says Reilly. “We feel like we’ve reached a point where women who are looking at MBA programmes for the most part either know someone who is here or who has gone through the programme.” 

In the six years Jessica Lutzker has been a member of the Harvard Business School MBA admissions board, she says the questions asked by female prospective students have changed slightly. “‘Can I be successful here as a woman?’ is not really what comes up,” says Lutzker, an HBS alumna from 2003, when women made up about one-third of the MBA class. (Women accounted for 42 per cent of first-year HBS students in the FT ranking.) 

Women still ask slightly different questions than men, Lutzker says, but not about what it is like to be a woman on campus. Questions are often related to financing a degree or an insecurity they might have about applying. 

To combat such worries, Lutzker says HBS contacts women who may not have otherwise approached Harvard, meets with women’s groups when visiting undergraduate universities and brings undergraduate women to campus for a weekend.

“We do all these events for students who might think HBS could be intimidating. When they see our students and get a feel for our school, that feeling goes away,” Lutzker says.

Many Harvard female applicants have children, partners or come from different industries, so the university also ensures it includes those voices on its MBA blog to address some of the concerns women might have, Lutzker says.

“That’s something I try to identify when I have the opportunity to speak to women. Don’t rule yourself out and don’t think you’re not good enough because you probably are,” she says. “That’s . . . very important: confidence and putting yourself out there.” 

How Wharton closed the gap

Anne-Marie Firth of Wharton’s Women in Business club
Standing out: Anne-Marie Firth of Wharton’s Women in Business club, which encourages women MBA candidates

Like many highly ranked schools, the share of women at Wharton has risen notably; in 2006, about a third of its first-year students were female.

“The biggest shift I’ve seen us make is around the personalisation of the process,” says Maryellen Reilly, Wharton’s deputy vice-dean.

The school hosts visits for prospective students, pairs women with current students and tailors its outreach based on prospective students’ interests.

Last year, Wharton women hand-wrote congratulatory postcards to successful female applicants, says Anne-Marie Firth, co-president of the Wharton Women in Business club, one of the largest and most active organisations on campus.

“Now that I’ve been on the inside and that I’ve been co-president of Wharton Women in Business, I’ve been able to see all that happens throughout the recruitment cycles, and it really is a lot,” she adds. “What really stands out to me . . . is that, between admissions and Wharton Women in Business, we make ourselves available to answer questions, have coffee chats and really be there for women as an extra point of contact.

Reilly adds: “The overarching thing that made change was the commitment from the dean’s office down that this was something that we wanted to be leaders in.”

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