Head of the Class (in B-School): Women

The next crop of business school students has more women than ever before, a new study shows.

These days, some are questioning the value of a master’s degree in business administration. A Google search for the phrase “is an MBA worth it?” returns nearly 150 million results. But there is at least one group that wants the business education: women.

According to a new study, women now account for 39% of full-time students at the top business schools around the world, the highest percentage ever. The jump is the result of not only stronger diversity and inclusion efforts by schools but also the businesses that are recruiting out of them, says Kenneth Kring, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry and co-managing director of the firm’s Global Education practice.

“Business schools are taking a broader approach to diversity across the spectrum of career services, including before, during, and after receiving a degree,” says Kring.

The new study was conducted by the Forte Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing gender parity at business schools. The foundation analyzed enrollment at its 54 member MBA programs across the United States, Canada, and Europe. Of those programs, 33 schools had a female student percentage of at least 35%, up from eight schools in 2010. Nineteen schools had a female student percentage of at least 40%, up from just two in 2010.

The gain in women MBA students counters a steady overall decline in business school enrollment in recent years. Applications to US business schools fell 9% in the most recent academic year, after dropping 7% the year before. Several reasons account for the fall, among them the high cost of admission, new digital jobs that don’t necessarily require traditional business skills, and a robust jobs market. At the same time, some corporate leaders are getting more vocal about whether an MBA education is producing the business leaders the world needs in the future.  

But Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, says that for women and other underrepresented groups, getting an MBA is still an important way to build credibility. “Given unconscious bias, business degrees provide a way to open doors and find career opportunities that would otherwise be granted to white males with or without a degree,” says Orr.

Research conducted by the Forte Foundation found that an MBA can increase salary for women by 63% or more. Other research, including from Korn Ferry, shows that having more females in leadership roles and on company boards improves financial performance and shareholder returns. But advancing women into those positions will take more than an MBA; organizations will need to provide them with operating experiences, including profit-and-loss responsibility, and the executive exposure needed for leadership roles, says Tierney Remick, vice chairman and co-leader of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice.

Given diversity and inclusion goals, Remick says demand for female leadership talent will only increase. She says organizations need to think about career paths for high-potential female talent early and “not wait until mid-career or later.”

“Having a diverse pipeline of well-educated, well-trained talent gives organizations the ability to develop leaders and drive progress over time,” says Remick.