What to Expect as a Woman in Business School

When I announced my MBA plans to friends and family — after a liberal arts degree, a year working as a tour guide in Rome, and three years working for a fashion magazine — I got a lot of (unsolicited) feedback.

One of my favorite queries came from my grandmother, who, eager that I provide her with her first great-grandchild, inquired, “Are you looking for an MBA or an MRS?” The catchiest comment by far, though, came from a friend who was just about to graduate from a Top 10 MBA program herself. She told me solemnly, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”

A Male Majority

My friend was referring primarily to the majority-male student populations at many elite programs. Today, Harvard Business School and The Wharton School lead the pack in inclusion of women in their MBA programs, enrolling classes whose female contingents were just above 40 percent in fall 2014.

Many other top schools follow closely: NYU’s Stern School of Business at 38 percent, Columbia Business School at 37 percent, University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business at 35 percent, and MIT’s Sloan School of Management at 34 percent for the class entering in fall 2014.

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These numbers, however, significantly lag the gender parity found in other professional degree programs. Forty-eight percent of students entering U.S. M.D.-granting schools in 2014 were women, for instance, as were 48 percent of first-year students in U.S. law schools in 2012, the most recent year for which American Bar Association data are available.

The B-School Network

Although women are in the minority at business school, the benefits of networking apply to all MBA candidates. Developing relationships with your classmates — as friends, potential business partners, colleagues, investors, and travel buddies, to name a few — is one of the best reasons to invest in a business school education. The lifetime value of your business school network is referred to so often as to seem cliché. In my own experience, though, that value has been great; and this has been true for the overwhelming majority of my classmates, my peers, and, more recently, my clients as a Senior Admissions Consultant with The MBA Exchange.

Some classmates end up dating each other, of course; and some end up married to each other, too. (Based on the raw data of male-female ratios, the odds of a single woman finding a mate in b-school are indeed good. But, regarding the quality of the “goods” — perhaps a uniquely MBA-inflected way of describing one’s fellow classmates — my friend was a bit more skeptical.) The value of business school is ultimately, of course, the MBA and the network it affords — not, as my grandmother suggested, an MRS.

Life in B-School

For those students entering b-school with spouses, families, and other significant personal commitments, juggling those responsibilities and priorities is a challenge regardless of gender. For women, having and/or raising children during their MBA studies can increase the complexity significantly. That said, many MBA women report experiencing great support from their classmates, study partners, professors, and b-school administrators during pregnancy and new parenthood — often exceeding their expectations for an in-school experience — and, meaningfully, exceeding the support that they would have expected or received in the workplace.

The Measurable Benefits of Business School

One of the benefits that an MBA brings is increased earning power. Forté Foundation research indicates that on average, MBA grads enjoy a salary increase of 35–40 percent over their pre-MBA compensation after graduation. This number jumps to 55–65 percent five years out, and correlates with millions of dollars in incremental earnings over the course of a career.

Another benefit is greatly enhanced career mobility. This means an accelerated path with your current employer, or the ability and flexibility to make geographic moves that serve your professional and personal goals.

It also means flexibility in how you work. While some jobs, and some companies, are more open than others to flexible work arrangements — including job-sharing, flextime, sabbaticals, and the like — the MBA will support you in locating and securing these opportunities. Even more, the skills and networks you develop during your MBA studies and beyond can open up myriad possibilities for entrepreneurial and consulting arrangements that can be flexible and highly rewarding — both financially and personally.

A Final Word

An MBA is an extraordinary investment of time, money, and energy — “extraordinary,” in my experience, taken to mean both “huge” and “excellent.” The challenges for women students are real, yes; but the rewards make the effort worthwhile for almost all who undertake the venture.

Curious about how women pursuing a second degree fare in other fields? Read My Experience with Sexism in Grad School.

Sources:

Symonds, M. (2014, August 29). Will Harvard Ever Have an MBA Class With 50 Percent Women? Retrieved from Business Week.

The Value of an MBA for Women. Retrieved February 6, 2015, from Forté Foundation.

Medical School Applications and Matriculants by School, State of Legal Residence, and Sex, 2014. Retrieved February 6, 2015, from Association of American Medical Colleges.

Enrollment and Degrees Awarded 1963–2012. Retrieved February 6, 2015, from The American Bar.