Business Schools Step Up Efforts to Attract More Women to Pricey Degree

Starting this month, the first image visitors to will see is a photo of a female executive.While women make up only 22% of the current executive M.B.A. class at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Business, the picture represents the program’s new, less male-dominated persona. It’s also part of a wider effort to attract more women applicants, says Camilla Morgan, assistant director of admissions and marketing for Cornell’s E.M.B.A. programs.

Q&A: How to Attract WomenWharton’s Mori Taheripour discusses the school’s efforts torecruit for its West Coast M.B.A. for Executives Program.

Professional Programs for Women

A sampling of the programs that deal with everything fromattaining leadership positions to issues of work-life balance.

A handful of schools have taken similar steps to boost female enrollment by creating personal networks to recruit women, changing classroom-time requirements and adding more outreach staff. But while interest in part-time, fast-track degrees geared toward professionals with 10 or more years’ experience has risen in recent years, many schools say they still have work to do to attract more women.

As it stands, women make up less than 20% of most E.M.B.A. class rolls, though at a number of top programs the percentage is even smaller — as low as 5%. Meanwhile, women typically make up nearly 30% of the class at top full-time M.B.A. programs and more than 40% of enrollment in part-time programs.

Slow to Draw

Experts say fewer women attend executive M.B.A. programs for many of the same reasons they shun full-time programs. Some women are deterred because the programs’ formats interfere with raising a family, something experts say men don’t worry about as much. (Most E.M.B.A. programs require a nearly two-year commitment of two long weekends on campus each month.) Other women have a tough time securing company sponsorship for the costly degree. And women who see a glass ceiling in their company often believe the degree won’t help their career. What’s more, until recently, most efforts by schools to entice women to earn advanced business degrees have been aimed at flagship full-time programs.

To change that, some schools, along with their alumni, have begun campaigns to capitalize on personal connections between women who are recent and soon-to-be graduates and first-year students, in an effort to increase enrollment and find mentors for the current students. Gillian Core, an entrepreneur who graduated from Columbia University’s E.M.B.A. program last August, launched a women’s student group while enrolled. So far, the group — a part of the full-time Columbia Women in Business club — has helped the school reach out to hundreds of potential female applicants through personal phone calls, Ms. Core says.

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, a faculty member devotes more than half of her time to increase diversity and female enrollment at its San Francisco-based E.M.B.A. program. Mori Taheripour started her outreach efforts in 2006, and female enrollment in the executive program has since risen by more than 10 percentage points to 25%. “If you make diversity a priority, then it pays off,” says Ms. Taheripour. “You have to commit to it.” She focuses on outreach to local organizations and also handles one-on-one coaching and networking events for women associated with the school.

Other institutions have used tuition dollars to court women applicants, as in the case of London Business School and IESE in Madrid, which are offering them scholarships. School administrators say the scholarships provide opportunities for women who “have to fight harder to make a case for funding,” says Linden Selby, a senior admissions manager at London Business School, where two 50% scholarships are offered annually. While 32% of E.M.B.A. students are fully funded by their companies, about 36% are partially funded, according to the E.M.B.A. Council, a membership group that serves the executive programs. The degree programs can cost upward of $150,000.

Appealing Formats

A few schools have even gone so far as to offer new program formats that are more appealing to women. Emory University’s modular E.M.B.A. program, started in 2002, meets for nine residency periods over 21 months. The program has 33% women in its current class, compared with 20% in its traditional E.M.B.A program. The school launched the new format after a flurry of requests for more flexible meeting times from companies that sponsor students and potential applicants. “For women with young children, weekends tend to be time they spend at home,” says director of admissions Joan Coonrod.

At IE Business School in Madrid, a 13-month E.M.B.A. program that combines two online class modules with three face-to-face meetings has an enrollment of 32% women, while the school’s traditional executive degree program is just 20% female. Celia de Anca, director of IE’s Center for Diversity in Global Management, says the flexible format has been key to attracting women to the school. For us attracting women was “a question of two things: the curriculum and how to change the delivery of it,” she says. The school also has made a greater push to include women in the case studies taught in class in an effort to make the lessons more relevant to women.

The increased focus on boosting female enrollment is a good sign for both schools and students eager to advance in the workplace, says Deborah Soon, a vice president at Catalyst, a New York nonprofit that promotes women in business. “If business schools want to continue to be endowed and to survive, they need to appeal” to not just half of potential students, says Ms. Soon, who adds that greater gender equality in executive programs will make programs better. For women in executive positions, the degree will help them climb the corporate ladder and “levels the playing field,” says Ms. Soon.

Research from the London Business School’s Centre for Women in Business, shows that a higher percentage of women in the classroom is important to success. “The optimal balance for teams to perform strongly is 50% women and we have that aspiration,” says Linden Selby, a senior admissions manager at the school. Even having the three-year-old research center has shown potential applicants the school’s commitment to educating female executives, she adds. The efforts around marketing the center and the scholarships are beginning to pay off. London Business School’s 2009 E.M.B.A class is made up of 21% women, up from 18% the year before.

Tough Road Ahead

For some schools, though, finding more female candidates seems unrealistic. Susan Ashford, associate dean of the executive M.B.A. program at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, says women on the executive track sometimes hit the glass ceiling or leave the workplace altogether. According to Catalyst, almost 50.6% of U.S. women in business hold management or professional positions, but only 15.7% of Fortune 500 corporate officers are women. “Most of them probably have a second full-time job raising kids, so it’s a lot to take on,” says Michigan’s Ms. Ashford, where 19% of E.M.B.A. students are women.

Lisa Koengeter, an assistant director at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign E.M.B.A. program, says that attracting women who are already balancing work and family is tough. The program has 19% women and rolling admissions. “I really hope [enrollment] increases,” Ms. Koengeter says. “Realistically, it probably won’t, because it hasn’t changed much in 30 years.”



This article is reprinted with permission from Career Journal, the executive career site of theWall Street Journal. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.