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4 Ways Women Can Thrive in Business School

Business school leaders encourage women to dress and act like they're in control.

Learning how to speak up during class discussions can help women excel in business school.
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Female MBA candidates may have a harder time finding camaraderie and a network that reflects their perspective. There are fewer women applying to business school, according to recent research.

The proportion of women applicants this year decreased compared with 2012 levels in five different kinds of MBA programs, according to the 2013 application trends survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council. The applicant pool for a master's in management, for example, had 53 percent women in 2012, but in 2013 that number dipped to 49 percent.

The decrease could make the male-dominated business school world even harder for women to navigate. Harvard Business School, for example, reportedly received mixed results from its recent two-year experiment that in part encouraged women to speak up more in class and receive the same accolades as their male peers.

In business careers and business school, women sometimes advocate for themselves less often than men, experts say, because they don't believe in themselves.

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"Women are self-doubters," says Heather Howell, chairwoman of the National Association for Women MBAs. Women often hesitate when evaluating what they're good at and how they can contribute to the class, she says. "There's a lack of confidence."

These problems can start long before women even fill out b-school applications.

"We know men and women are socialized differently from a very early age," says Alison Davis-Blake, dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor. "Girls don't raise their hands necessarily as much. They aren't necessarily as noticed when they raise their hands. So these are deep-seated, long-standing differences in how people behave."

Business school deans and industry leaders encourage women to overcome any hang-ups about asserting themselves in class. They recommend four tactics for excelling when surrounded by male peers while getting their MBA.

1. Raise your hand: Women often hesitate to talk right away during a class discussion, but should push themselves to speak up sooner, says Amy Hillman, dean of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

They can "start raising their hand before they've fully formulated what they're going to say," says Hillman. "It gets you in the game a lot quicker."

Stewing over whether a comment is fully thought out gives another classmate the chance to be called on, she says.

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Students can also outline three to five statements they can contribute to class discussions before class begins to ensure they have something to say, she says.

If MBA candidates are hesitant to speak up but are good listeners, Davis-Blake encourages them to focus on that skill. Then, by the end of the discussion, they can try to chime in based on what they've heard.

"Have it be a decisive and final word," she says.

2. Speak with authority: Women must abandon negative qualifying statements, says Daria Burke, founder and CEO of Black MBA Women. Starting a response with, "This might be a dumb question, but ... " or "I don't know if this is right" detracts from the quality of the message, she says.

"People will trust you more and be more inclined to listen if you are more confident and doing it without that apology," say Burke, a graduate of the Stern School of Business at New York University.

3. Look like you mean business: Dressing in a professional manner can help women communicate that they want to be taken seriously, Burke says.

"Don't wear anything that you wouldn't wear in front of your coworkers," she says, adding that short skirts and tight clothing may leave people with the wrong impression. "People will remember that and it makes a huge difference when people talk to you."

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4. Talk with professors: Burke recalls frequently seeing male business school classmates in conversation with professors after class. She urges women to get to know their teachers so that in class these same professors will call on them.