Women Shying Away from Business Degrees

Women are staying away in droves from the prestigious and lucrative graduate business schools a new report says, although their enrollment in law, medicine and accounting has risen to about 50 percent.

The playing field for women vying for a prestigious business degree is far from even and the percentage of women enrolled in top-tier graduate business schools is far less than at other advanced degree programs, a new report says.

A study by Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization, in conjunction with the University of Michigan Business School and the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan, found:

  • Many women are deterred from applying to business schools in early stages of their academic or professional careers.
  • Women in graduate business programs do have a subtly different academic experience than men.
  • Women who attend top-tier business schools are as satisfied with the value of the degree as their male peers.

The survey of 1,684 male and female recipients of master's degrees in business administration from 12 top-ranked business schools suggests that women are discouraged from pursuing a graduate degree in business by a shortage of role models in the business world and in business school faculty. Respondents also said women were discouraged from enrolling by a lack of confidence in their math skills. In addition, employers failed to encourage their female employees to pursue the lucrative degree, the report said.

Graduates of these programs receive starting annual salaries of slightly more than $130,000.

Women obtain 50 percent of all undergraduate business degrees yet they account for approximately 30 percent of the student body in graduate business programs, a level that has remained consistent over the past 10 years. Women represent only 20 percent of the faculty for the top-tier business schools, and only 7 percent of business school deans, according to the AACSB-International Association for Management Education.

This is in stark contrast to women's presence elsewhere in higher education. Women are now outpacing men in the line-up for undergraduate degrees, receiving 57 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in 1999 and holding their own in top-tier graduate schools for law and medicine, with enrollment levels at 44 percent, according to U.S. News and World Report.

The study did not find a clear dichotomy between the experiences of women and men at business school, said Dr. Katherine Giscombe, Catalyst's senior director of research and information services. “When you ask about the components of their experiences, there are indications that women are not as likely to feel included in the business school environment,” she added.

Only 39 percent of women felt that they had adequate time to work with female professors. While 82 percent of men agreed that they had an easy time making points in class, 70 percent of women felt the same ease. Less than half of the women students reported being able to relate to the case studies used in the coursework, while 63 percent of men could relate easily.

The differences in experience by African-American women, as compared to African-American men and white women, were pronounced. For example, African-American women were most likely to experience discriminatory behavior, whether based on race, ethnicity or gender. Fifty percent of the African-American men reported they experienced racially discriminatory behavior; 62 percent of the African-American women said they had such experiences. Also, 19 percent of white women reported they had been victims or observers of discrimination, while 33 percent of African-American women said they had these experiences.

The study was conducted to investigate the factors behind the under-representation of women in these degree programs and to propose strategies that business schools can implement to make the programs more welcoming to women.

The business schools have not yet had an opportunity to respond to the full report, which is in production and due to be mailed out in the next several weeks. But according to B. Joseph White, dean of the University of Michigan Business school, which cosponsored the study, business schools have reasons to be receptive.

“We have an opportunity gap-high satisfaction among women who attend MBA programs but few women investing themselves in those programs in the first place. Getting more women into MBA programs means better access to the total talent pool for business,” he said.