Where Are the Women MBAs?

University Testing

In contrast to their relatively proportional share of medical and law school enrollments, women make up just over 30 percent of the student body at U.S. business schools. This disparity has changed minimally over the last decade and shows little sign of improving. Concerned researchers, business schools, and professional organizations have been teaming up to find out why.


The MBA pipeline may begin with the opportunities, attitudes and experiences of girls as early as junior high. In 2002, Simmons College of Management collaborated with the Committee of 200 (C200), a professional group of corporate and entrepreneurial business leaders, to examine how middle and high school girls view business as a career and life opportunity. The study, “Teen Girls on Business: Are They Being Empowered?,” found that women leave high school and enter college with much less self-confidence in math and finance than men, despite having higher grades. This leads them away from areas crucial to business success.


These perceptions are strongly reinforced when females take the SAT and score significantly lower than men. Most women don’t know the test systematically under-predicts their performance and overpredicts for their male peers. This lack of confidence shadows qualified women as they graduate from college, move into the work world, and consider graduate education.


In 2000, the University of Michigan Business School and Catalyst, a research and advisory organization, published “Women and the MBA: Gateway to Opportunity.” This survey of women graduates from top business schools found that while the vast majority of MBA grads were satisfied with their degrees, almost half of female MBA’s cited a lack of confidence in math skills as a barrier that steers women away from applying to B-school.


Females make up more than half of all college graduates and post higher undergraduate GPAs than their male peers. Yet two-fifths as many women ever attempt to take the GMAT. As a group, those women who take the GMAT receive a judgment similar to that handed down by the SAT: women are less capable than men– 38 points out of 800 less “able” on average in math alone.


Not surprisingly, women go on to apply to business school less frequently than men, apply to fewer schools, and are less likely to send their score results to top-tier schools, despite having similar or superior qualifications. A comprehensive longitudinal study by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) found that while matriculants and non-matriculants have very similar qualifications, “GMAT score is significantly positively related to the likelihood of applying to a graduate management school.” GMAC, which sponsors the GMAT, also found that “an overwhelming majority” of full- time applicants who were not accepted to their first choice school reported low GMAT scores as an important reason.


This single 3-hour test wields a tremendous amount of power. Despite having been shown to predict only an average of 17 percent of the variation in first-year grades (in some studies as little as 3 percent), it weighs heavily in the judgment of B-school admissions officers. Many B-schools use GMAT cut-off scores of 550 and higher but females average only 503.Ninety percent of GMAC member schools have average scores over 500.


Cutoff scores also control the award of hundreds of “merit” scholarships offering millions of dollars in aid each year. Regardless of financial need, this money is out of reach for most women, particularly African American and Hispanic women whose scores average more than 150 points below their white male counterparts.


In 1982-83, the score gap between men and women was only 10 points. In 2000-2001 it had climbed to 38 points, while the ratio of male to female test takers has changed little. Women do score higher than men on one portion of the GMAT, the Analytic Writing Assessment. Unfortunately, this portion of the test, while always used by GMAC to calculate predictive validity, is not used by many schools for making admissions decisions. Yet research by test-makers has found that “including the Analytical Writing score as part of an admissions screening battery would substantially increase the number of eligible women.”


How do women who trudge through the test-taking quagmire fare when weighed against men? They are accepted by business schools at a lower rate, matriculate less frequently, drop out more often and are less likely to receive a degree. The few that do make it through the ever-narrowing pipeline however, graduate with GPAs equal to their male peers despite lower test scores—an outcome that the GMAT had no ability to predict.


Many business schools now say they want to increase the percentage of women who enroll and have talked about creating a more welcoming environment. But women cannot take advantage of these improved school climates as long as GMAT dominates as the inflexible gatekeeper, intimidating them from applying and barring them from acceptance and financial support. The most important step business schools can take to increase the women in their ranks: push the GMAT aside so it does not block the door.