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MBA Gender Gap Attributable to GMAT Test Score Gap?

Recent data from the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), which owns and administers the GMAT, has revealed that women appear to underperform men by about 20 points on the exam – a finding that has led some to question whether and how much the exam itself may contribute to the fact that women continue to remain a minority of business school students.

According to GMAC’s data for the 2011-12 testing year, the mean total score on the GMAT for men was 557, compared to a mean total score for women of 536 – out of a possible 800. Lee Weiss, Kaplan Test Prep executive director of graduate programs, told the Financial Times that he thinks the 20-point difference could have a lot to do with why women are still significantly underrepresented in MBA programs (in contrast to education programs in general).

“When you’re applying to top business schools, breaking the 700 barrier is very important,” Weiss told the FT, noting that Kaplan’s latest survey of business schools found a low GMAT score to be the biggest application killer. “If the highest score for women was 690 and men got 710 that would put women at a disadvantage.”

According to the FT article, GMAT is not the only exam for which such a gender disparity in scores exists. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE), increasingly accepted by top MBA programs in lieu of the GMAT, also found that for testing year 2012-2013, women trailed men in scores on the quantitative reasoning section of the test (150.2 for women, 154.9 for men), one of three sections of the exam. (Women and men performed equally well on the verbal reasoning section [a mean 150.5 each] and women outperformed men on the analytical writing section [3.6 compared to 3.4].)

According to Laura Tyson, professor of management and director of the Institute for Business and Social Impact at University of California’s Berkeley-Haas School of Business, women need to have strong quantitative skills to handle the intense quant demands they will encounter when they get to business school. But, she does not believe that women are less capable, pointing out to the FT growing evidence from many parts of the world that the perceived difference between men and women’s quant skills either doesn’t exist or is diminishing.

Top business school admissions offices at schools like Harvard Business School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School – both of which are taking pains to increase their percentage of female students – declined to comment on whether or what weighting they give to women’s GMAT or GRE scores during the admissions process.

Whichever way you look at it, though, a better test score would help women in the admissions process. To this end, the FT reports, organizations like the Forté Foundation are placing more of an emphasis on preparing for the exams.

“Anecdotal information is that women often go in three to four years after graduation. They have lots of things going on in life. They take the test and are disappointed,” Elissa Ellis Sangster, Forté executive director, told the FT. So much so that some women give up on pursuing the MBA.

So Forté is stressing the importance of confidence and preparedness to its members.  “Preparing and persisting through that process is so important,” Sangster told the FT.

GMAC, for its part, points to the fact that though a gap in terms of test scores does exist, women have been gradually closing it over time. Tracey Briggs, director of media relations for GMAC, told the FT that according to the most recent data available, the gender performance gap has narrowed from about 40 points in the 2002-03 testing year to the 20-point gap reported in 2011-12.

Read the complete Financial Times article, “Women Face a Testing Time to Secure an MBA Place.”