More Women Head to School for M.B.A.s

Many schools are working to attract females and offer programs to improve the academic experience.

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In just a few weeks, a record number of female students will set foot in the hallowed halls of Harvard Business School and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School—two top M.B.A. programs that have recently touted a significant increase in the number of women applying. About 39 percent of Harvard's class of 2013 will be female, its highest percentage ever, Deirdre Leopold, managing director of M.B.A. admissions and financial aid, tells the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, women make up 45 percent of the incoming class at Wharton. "We had to do a double-take when we saw it," says Ankur Kumar, deputy director of admissions, in Fortune Magazine. "We couldn't believe our eyes. It was a fantastic moment for us."

The upward trajectory of women in b-school is occurring abroad as well. London Business School announced recently that it will target female enrollment figures of at least 30 percent in its M.B.A. program going forward from this month's intake. The school describes this as an inspirational target, which mirrors a broader campaign by the 30% Club, a lobby group which aims to see women make up 30 percent of British board rooms by 2015.

These numbers are certainly heartening, but what has led to the increase, and what does it mean for women during the M.B.A. program and afterward? In Wharton's case, the school has worked for the past few years to debunk the pervasive myths and stereotypes of women being unqualified and outnumbered, Kumar explains in Forbes. Like many schools, Wharton has ramped up it outreach to potential applicants through campus admissions events featuring female students and alumnae to urge women to consider the professional and personal advancement that comes with an M.B.A. degree.

[See U.S. News's rankings of the best business schools.]

My alma mater, Kellogg School of Management, hosts the Women's Leadership Workshop each year to attract high-potential women who are early in their career and may be in industries where an M.B.A. degree is not part of the traditional career path. Columbia Business School also holds an annual recruiting event for female M.B.A. applicants called Women Connect, which brings prospective students to campus to meet current female students, alumni, and faculty members. Duke University's Fuqua School of Business says it's dedicated to building a diverse learning community that affords each woman the opportunity to reach her highest potential. To do so, it hosts the Duke M.B.A. Weekend for Women, an event that provides a dialogue as to what it means to be a woman balancing her needs in the business world.

Professional organizations such as the Forté Foundation, established in 2001 to provide women with the tools and resources to achieve a successful career in business, have done much to change the landscape of b-school recruiting efforts. Sponsored by the Graduate Management Admission Council and all of the top business schools, events such as the upcoming Forté Forum help women learn how to finance an M.B.A., how to achieve work/life/balance, and how to successfully apply to an M.B.A. program.

[Admissions experts offer advice on how to get in to business school.]

Once admitted, women can and should take advantage of the various targeted clubs, conferences and organizations that are available. These resources provide exceptional leadership, networking and mentoring opportunities, as well as crucial personal and professional support. Women often struggle to balance social and professional relationships and reportedly view their b-school experience less positively than their male counterparts, so creating a learning environment that is supportive of all students will be the key to improving women's academic experience—an issue I touched upon in a previous post examining Harvard's academic gender gap.

All told, I would say that the increase in women interested in the M.B.A. is great for business and terrific for society as a whole. The subject does have some thorns, though, which I'll take a look at in next week's post.