- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

It’s one of those conundrums. Slightly fewer than half the students in medical school are women. Ditto for law school. Yet in the hunt for a master’s degree in business administration, women remain a definite minority — about a third at the top schools.

In some places, female enrollments actually have fallen.

Why aren’t women knocking down the doors to graduate business schools? The answer involves a negative perception of the business world, education experts say — and it’s depriving women of an important tool to enhance their careers.

“In business overall, I probably have to admit, there isn’t a clear path for women to advance, and therefore the appeal of entry to women isn’t as straight as say, law or medicine,” says Dan Bauer, founder of the MBA Exchange, a Chicago admissions consulting firm. “That’s sort of unfortunately ingrained in the culture of many businesses. … And I advise our clients that it creates a tremendous opportunity.”

For many women, an MBA apparently doesn’t look very promising. From 2000 to 2002, female enrollment at the top 20 MBA programs fell by 35 percent, as did enrollments overall, according to Business Week magazine. Also, women’s share of MBA enrollments at those schools has barely risen (roughly three percentage points) since 1992. That’s half or less the rise that law and medical schools saw in the same period.

Not all schools follow this trend, says Kathleen Rogan, director of George Washington University’s full-time MBA program.

Ms. Rogan says her university has averaged from 45 percent to 50 percent women in its MBA program over the past three years.

It isn’t just one factor leading to that higher figure.

True, being in the heart of Washington certainly helps, with its higher proportion of professional women. However, she credits her university for its aggressive outreach program to both young women and men.

It also helps that the university emphasizes teamwork more than aggressiveness in its lesson plans. That may sound like a soft and fuzzy approach, but she says it imitates the real world.

“When you’re put into an organization, you’re often put on a team,” says Ms. Rogan, whose MBA programs feature 17 fields, including nonprofits and marketing.

The university’s modest class size also draws positive reaction from students.

“We’re a small program here of about 200 students,” she says. “Everybody gets to know each other; it’s very friendly.”

Others in the education field scan the business environment and see a landscape that lacks appeal for women.

“I think women look at the business world and think, ‘Do I feel like this is a place I want to be?’” says Marie Wilson, director of the Ms. Foundation for Women, a New York-based advocacy group for women and girls.

The apparent answer is no. According to a 2000 study by Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization, and the University of Michigan, female graduates cited as barriers: a lack of female role models, incompatibility of careers in business with work-life balance, lack of confidence in math skills, and a lack of encouragement by employers.

“There are bigger hurdles [women] have to get over,” says Elissa Ellis, assistant dean of the MBA program at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. “A lot of men think, ‘I’m going to get an MBA.’ Maybe it doesn’t come as an option as easily for women. They need to think about what kinds of things they can do with an MBA.”

As a result, business schools and other organizations have created outreach programs to attract more women. “One of the things that I think business schools need to do a better job of is to grow the pipeline of qualified women,” says Britt Dewey, director of admissions for Harvard Business School.

At Harvard, for example, the admissions office works to highlight education for women as business leaders, Ms. Dewey adds. Not all business schools make such an effort. While 35 percent of schools reported targeted outreach efforts for women in full-time programs last year, 29 percent made no outreach efforts, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council Application Trends Survey.

Women’s organizations are becoming increasingly important in the effort to dispel MBA myths.

“There are numerous aspects preventing women from entering into an MBA program,” says Jeanne Wilt, president of the Forte Foundation, a consortium of seven top companies, 13 business schools in the United States and Britain, and two nonprofit organizations.

“Among them is the idea that an MBA does not fit into the type of lifestyle they wish to pursue. These are exactly the types of perception that the forum seeks to get rid of.” In September, the foundation sponsored a series of forums urging women to examine the opportunities of an MBA. The eight-city series attracted about 1,000 women.

“That was just an absolutely incredible event,” says Beth Fly, a Northwestern University admissions director who attended the Atlanta forum in 2002. “It was incredibly inspiring. I, myself, left pretty pumped after the event.”

Like the Forte Forums, MBA Exchange links women with past clients to offer insight into the schools they’re considering. This insight often helps clients decide which schools might work best for them, Mr. Bauer says.

The figures for the entering class of 2006 are not available yet, but Ms. Wilt remains optimistic more women will enter business programs.

“You need mentoring and role modeling,” she says. “Listen to a woman who’s been successful, and listen to her talk about [her experiences]. It really has nothing to do with gender. It has to do with being a great businessperson.”

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