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Business schools are eager to be seen as working towards gender equity. Harvard Business School, for example, has been experimenting with techniques to support female students. Other schools have professors who lecture on females in the workplace. Babson College runs the Center For Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership, which is targeted at female students who wish to run their own businesses.

Everyone, it seems, is keen to promote advantages for women.

Yet although women are making strides in education generally, accounting for a majority of university students overall in most developed countries, they remain in a minority in business schools.

Data from the Graduate Management Admission Council, which runs the Graduate Management Admission Test, might help explain why this is the case. The problem is that women appear to underperform men by about 20 points in the GMAT. In the 2011-12 testing year the mean total score for men was 557, while the mean total figure for women was 536. The top score in the GMAT is 800.

Lee Weiss, executive director of graduate programmes at Kaplan Test Prep, says that a 20-point difference could make all the difference.

“When you’re applying to top business schools, breaking the 700 barrier is very important and our latest annual survey of business schools shows a low GMAT score is the biggest application killer,” he says.

“If the highest score for women was 690 and men got 710 that would put women at a disadvantage.”

A similar gender disparity emerges in the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) tests. The GRE scores are expressed as three separate numbers, one for verbal reasoning, one for quantitative reasoning and the last for analytical writing. The most recent test scores, for June 2012-June 2013, reveal that men and women perform equally well on verbal reasoning, scoring a mean of 150.5 each. Women outperform men on the analytical writing section with a mean score of 3.6 compared with 3.4 for men. On quantitative reasoning, however, men score 154.9 against women’s 150.2.

The quant score might be what is holding women back, but altering the test to benefit those who find maths hard does not seem to be the answer. There is no getting around the fact that you need to be highly numerate to do well in business school.

“First year at business school is going to be quantitatively demanding, so you need to be sure that they can handle it,” says Laura Tyson, professor of management and director of the Institute for Business and Social Impact at University of California’s Berkeley-Haas School of Business.

However, she does not believe women are less capable. She says that there is growing evidence from many parts of the world that the perceived difference between men and women on quantitative skills either does not exist or is getting smaller over time.

GMAT data from China, where women slightly outperform men on the test, would seem to support Prof Tyson’s theory (see box).

It is unclear what weighting top schools give to women’s GMAT or GRE scores during the admissions process. HBS says that it had a relatively high proportion of women students – they accounted for 39 per cent of its MBA cohort in 2013 – but added that it would like to “pass” on commenting on its admissions policy.

The Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, whose MBA class of 2013 was 45 per cent women – making it a school with one of the highest proportions of women – was also reluctant to make any comment, as were deans from several of the top schools.

Both GMAC and Educational Testing Services, which administer GRE tests, say that they advise schools that it would be unwise to look at just one metric.

Clearly, however, a better score would put women in a better position. Elissa Ellis Sangster, executive director of the Forté Foundation, a non-profit consortium which aims to promote women in business and business education, says the problem could be due to lack of preparation. She says that Forté tries to encourage women to think about the three Ps: planning, preparation and persistence.

“Anecdotal information is that women often go in three to four years after graduation. They have lots of things going on in life. They take the test and are disappointed,” Ms Sangster says, adding that the disappointment often leads to women giving up.

She says it is all about confidence and preparedness. “Preparing and persisting through that process is so important.”

Simone Pollard, director of business school relations at ETS, would agree that preparation is the key to doing well at either GRE or GMAT. “They are all learned skills. These tests are testing what you know at this particular time. People are arriving at different milestones at different levels of preparation.”

If consistency in GMAT scores is to be believed, and Tracey Briggs, director of media relations at GMAC says that it is one of the organisation’s chief concerns, then women are to be applauded for gradually closing the gap over time. The latest publicly available figures show the gender performance gap has narrowed from about 40 points in the 2002-03 testing year to the 20-point gap reported in 2011-12.

If women can also manage to close the gap in the other parts of their application, then gender equity in business schools could soon be a real proposition in the not-so-distant future.

But there are other factors at work. Prof Tyson says that one should ask why women do not apply, not why they are not doing so well. She points out that women are in the minority of GMAT test takers.

“Maybe they have already decided business school is not for them,” she says.

“I think it’s [business school] a terrific education because it gives you skills which are applicable to a variety of different sectors and activities.”

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