Steph Speirs first got into business school in 2011. After graduating from Yale, she worked in government with the Obama campaign and in national security and thought an MBA might be beneficial to a career in social impact.
But when Ms Speirs toured the campus of the elite school she was accepted to, she reconsidered: the school was less than a third female. “It just seemed like a lot of money to pay to go to a place that wasn’t inclusive,” she says. Instead, she opted to study public policy at Princeton.
Last year, as the solar power non-profit Ms Speirs founded gained momentum, she again contemplated business school. During the application process, she discovered things were different: many of her choice schools now had greater numbers of women.
In August, Ms Speirs started an MBA at MIT Sloan, where today women represent 41 per cent of the class — a record for the school. “I do not feel like I’m in the minority here,” she says. “Business school is a vocal place and if I were to close my eyes during class and listen to the voices talking I wouldn’t even know it’s not an equal split [male to female].”
After more than a decade of concerted efforts to recruit more female MBAs, many of the most competitive business schools in the US are reporting substantial numbers of women. The Class of 2017 at Wharton and Kellogg are each comprised of 43 per cent women. Harvard, Tuck, and Stanford’s MBA classes stand at 42 per cent and at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, women represent 41 per cent of the new class.
The rise has been rapid. In 2005, women represented just 29 per cent of enrolment at top schools, according to the Forté Foundation, the non-profit group that aims to boost the number of women.
“In the past two years this issue has gone from being on the radar of deans to being a priority,” says Elissa Sangster, the executive director at Forté. “Having these top schools at over 40 per cent raises the stakes for others in terms of what they see as attainable.”
Indeed, while top-tier business schools have made progress in recruiting greater numbers of women, they are the exception. Despite the fact that women have long outnumbered men on college campuses and that they represent roughly half of all law and medical school students, the percentage of MBA degrees conferred to women in the US has been stuck at 35 per cent since 2003, according to data from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the industry body.
“It’s still a recruiting game that they’re all playing,” says Ms Sangster. And the elite schools have played it well. Over the past decade, most have hired admissions officers dedicated to recruiting women. In addition, they now hold special conferences and workshops about and for women, and they have increased the amount of scholarship dollars allocated for women and minorities. Since 2005, Forté sponsor schools, which include Harvard, MIT Sloan, and Wharton among others, have awarded more than $73m in scholarships to women.
The challenges business schools face in attracting women are well known. For one, business school is often seen as a cut-throat, male-dominated environment, which is a turn-off for many women. For another, most MBA programmes require four to five years of prior work experience, which poses a difficult timetable for a young woman thinking about starting a family.
Perhaps the most powerful deterrent is the high price tag of business school, which can run to about $100,000 per year. Added to this, female MBAs tend to earn less money than their male counterparts, according to research.
In light of that, some schools, including MIT Sloan, have honed how they convey “the value proposition” of an MBA to young women, says Maura Herson, director of the MBA programme.
“We are communicating the value proposition of the MBA’s professional network and showing them how they can use the credential to re-enter the workforce.”
Schools have also attempted to reach women earlier by marketing the MBA on college campuses. “We are trying to plant the seed that a business degree is a worthwhile investment,” says Dawna Clarke, Tuck’s admissions director.
These efforts come at a time when the shortage of female leaders in corporate America is part of the national dialogue. Only a small minority of S&P 500 chief executives are women; the percentage of female board members in the Fortune 1000 is 17 per cent.
The dearth of female leaders is also a hot topic on business school campuses. Lean In, the bestselling women’s workplace empowerment manifesto by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is practically required reading for MBA students, says Kiran Gandhi, a recent graduate of Harvard Business School — Ms Sandberg’s alma mater.
Ms Gandhi once helped host a student-led discussion group about the book. “There were many, many men in the room and the discussion felt real and inspiring,” she says.
“I felt like something that was really important to me was being talked about.”
As employers come under increasing pressure to make progress toward gender parity at leadership level, they look to business schools for help.
“A lot of our largest employers have talked with me about how we can get more women into the pipeline,” says Maryellen Lamb, Wharton’s deputy vice dean for MBA admissions and financial aid. “And by the end of August, they are always hungry to know the class make-up.”
Ms Speirs, the first-year student at MIT Sloan, is confident the numbers of women at her school and others will rise in the coming years.
“There are so many talented women out there,” she says. “There’s no reason it shouldn’t be 50-50.”
This article has been amended to clarify that Ms Speirs did not apply to Yale SOM for an MBA