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Why Aren’t More Women Getting MBAs?

Taken on their own, the statistics are jarring: between 2015 and 2016, women earned only 38 percent of MBA degrees issued internationally. In the United States, that number was 36 percent.

In context, it’s even worse. For graduate degrees generally, 60 percent of degrees were issued to women. And for many specialized business masters degrees, half of degrees issued are now going to women. So why is the MBA lagging so far behind?

That’s the question GMAC looked to answer in their new white paper, What Women Want: A Blueprint for Change in Business Education.


To shed light on the gender gap, GMAC surveyed women working toward business degrees on all continents, hoping to learn about these women’s motivations for enrolling in business school, their career ambitions, and the obstacles they’ve faced.

The results of the survey suggest that while women value the MBA as highly as men and are at least as confident as men in their ability to demonstrate their qualifications by taking standardized tests like the GMAT, women nonetheless end up avoiding the MBA for a range of practical reasons.

Here are some of the main findings from the report.

Full-Time MBA Lags Behind in Gender Parity

One point of departure for the GMAC white paper is that women seem to be underrepresented in MBA programs specifically, not just in business graduate education overall. In fact, several specialized masters degrees have achieved gender parity.

According to data collected for GMAC’s 2016 Application Trends Survey, women receive over half of all Master of Marketing, Master of Accounting and Master of Management degrees issued worldwide.

Master of Finance and Master of Data Analytics programs are a little less balanced, but women still receive more than 45 percent of these degrees. By contrast, recall that women earn less than 40 percent of MBAs issued internationally.

While business masters have continued to rise in popularity among women, then, MBA programs have had a harder time bringing in female applicants. For some reason, women are more likely to opt for other business degrees over the MBA.

It’s not because women don’t value the MBA degree, though. In fact, women may value the MBA more than men – globally, men tended to agree with the statement that “the MBA degree is not as highly regarded as it used to be” more strongly than women.

When women do enroll in MBA programs, though, they’re less likely to choose full-time MBA programs. In part-time MBA, flexible MBA and online MBA programs, women already have attained gender parity with men. But in one- and two-year full-time programs, the gap persists.

So why are women more likely to go for part-time MBA programs and specialized masters degrees, with more men pursuing full-time MBAs? According to the GMAC report, part of it may come down to men and women’s differing motivations for pursuing graduate business degrees.

Women Tend to Get Business Degrees for More Pragmatic Reasons

To figure out how men and women approach business school differently, GMAC decided to ask a tried-and-true question applicants are used to answering: why d’you want a business degree, anyway?

For men, getting a business degree is often about status. They want to increase their status, gain respect, keep up with their peers.

Women, meanwhile, tend to give more pragmatic responses. They want to earn more money, have more rewarding careers, and move their careers forward more quickly.

The GMAC’s survey didn’t analyze how these different motivations correlate with pursuing different business degrees or why women and men tend to have slightly different motivations for going to B-school.

But it’s not so farfetched to think that these different motivations could impact what degrees men and women are interested in.

After all, if you want to advance your career as efficiently as possible, it’s easy to see why a specialized masters might be attractive. And if it’s prestige you’re after, it’s understandable that an MBA might make sense.

Besides being more pragmatic about what they want from their business degrees, women also tend to put practical concerns first when choosing a specific business school. On average, they’re more focused on things like the quality of the faculty and the school’s reputation than men are.

By contrast, men tend to give a little more weight to factors like where the school’s located and whether people they know recommend the school.

Overall, then, women tend to prioritize practical concerns a bit more when choosing both a degree and a school, which could explain at least part of the difference in which business programs men and women ultimately enroll in.

Funding and Other Obstacles

Of course, none of this is to say that women are underrepresented in MBA programs simply because they’re not interested in MBAs.

Women face several obstacles when they apply to business school, and one of the biggest is funding. Women most commonly cite obtaining funds as their biggest barrier to pursuing a graduate business degree, with 18 percent of women naming this as their top concern globally.

In the United States, a full 30 percent of women say that funding is their biggest hurdle. On the other hand, only 9 percent of U.S. men cite this as their number one challenge.

Instead, men see preparing for admissions exams and obtaining funding as equally big challenges when applying to business school, with 15 percent of men naming each as their top concern.

Women, meanwhile, are relatively confident when it comes to standardized tests. Fewer women than men think the GMAT is too hard, and more women than men think their test scores improve their applications.

Instead, finances are front and center as the thing standing between women and business school, especially in the United States. Globally, women who have not accepted B-school admissions offers most often cite financial reasons.

Women are also less likely than men to say they’d “pay whatever it takes to go to one of the top-ranked graduate schools.”

Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that for women who are getting business degrees primarily to advance their careers or increase their earning power, financial reasons are a common reason for not accepting admissions offers – much more so than for women with other motivations like gaining respect.

These results have a clear takeaway for business schools around the world and in the United States especially: if you want more women in your MBA classes, give them more funding opportunities.

Ultimately, one survey can’t untangle all the reasons women remain underrepresented in MBA programs around the world. But the GMAC white paper gives us several interesting data points that can move the conversation forward.

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It shows that women often have more pragmatic goals when they enroll in graduate business programs. And the obstacle they most frequently cite is also a practical one – lack of funding.

So this may be a problem with a practical solution, too. More funding opportunities, through scholarships and so on, could bring more women into MBA programs – especially the women most likely to turn down MBA admissions offers for financial reasons, those who are looking to raise their incomes and advance their careers.

For more data on how men and women tend to approach business school differently, see the GMAC white paper.