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Forté Foundation Report Reveals Women Holding Their Ground in MBA Programs

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Women, disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic at work, are poised to be at the forefront of the coming recovery. The Forté Foundation has released a report indicating that, despite conditions that have widened the gender gap in the worldwide economy, enrollment of women in its member schools’ MBA programs held its ground.

After making gains in representation since 2013 from 33 percent to 39 percent in 2019, enrollment for women in 2020 currently averages at just over 39 percent in U.S. schools and 36 percent in international schools.

The Forté Foundation is a non-profit founded in 2001 to promote gender parity in business and business schools. Just 6 percent of S&P 500 CEOs are women. “An MBA, or another advanced degree, can help more women crack the glass ceiling in business and help build the leadership pipeline at companies,” said Elissa Sangster, Forté’s CEO. “Myriad research over many years has clearly shown that having a more diverse leadership team at companies contributes to better financial performance, which is needed more than ever in the current economic climate.”

Navigating an Especially Difficult Year

Applications to MBA programs have been on the decline in recent years, but as often happens during an economic crisis, 2020 saw a spike in applications.

MBA applicants weighed many complex factors this year in deciding whether their plans were feasible. They had to consider application deadlines, whether schools were requiring standardized test scores, how the pandemic affected international travel and visas, deferral options and what effect deferral might have on scholarships, and if an increased number of applications would flood into schools next year.

“While some women continue to pursue their MBA this year due to concerns application volume would increase next year, or their scholarship would evaporate if they deferred, other women may have decided their best course of action was to wait,” Sangster said. “Anecdotally, we’ve heard incentives that helped accelerate women’s plans to attend business school include scholarships, extension of the application deadline, and some schools waiving GMAT requirements, which also benefited men. Others were motivated to enroll due to declining earning power and job security in the pandemic, which they hope to reverse by pursuing an MBA during this challenging time.”

The challenges women worldwide are facing in the pandemic have been unique. Women are more likely to be employed in social sector jobs that require face-to-face interaction and do not have an option to telework. This has resulted in higher unemployment numbers than men. Women also tend to do most of the housework in family arrangements, bearing the brunt of childcare and eldercare during shutdowns. Statistics show that these women are also slower to return to the workforce.

In low-income countries, many more women are informally employed without the protections of labor regulations and healthcare or pensions. Poverty levels among women in these countries are skyrocketing. Women also risk losing human capital in many countries where young women are forced to drop out of school during these kinds of crises to help support the household and are less likely to return, finish, and expand their education afterward.

GMAC research in the spring of 2020 indicated that in March, male and female MBA candidates equally reported that they were very concerned or extremely concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their studies. However, by the end of April, women respondents who said they were very concerned or extremely concerned had jumped to 55 percent, while only 37 percent of men responded in kind. More than half were considering delaying their pursuit of an MBA, and among international women candidates, that number was 50 percent versus 43 percent for domestic candidates.

The Forté Foundation’s Impact

The Forté Foundation includes 52 member schools representing prestigious MBA programs across the US, Canada, and Europe. Twenty-two schools reported women made up over 40% of their class, and eight schools reported totals over 45%, representing a record number of schools reaching these enrollment milestones for women in their MBA programs. Twenty-seven schools (more than half) reported increases in their proportion of women this year. While they did see 20 schools report declines and another five remain flat, this is still considered an achievement considering the conditions.

The foundation has worked to close the gender gap for women pursuing careers in business and seeking an MBA through years of robust initiatives. The Forté Fellows scholarship program has awarded $277 million in scholarships since 2003. Hundreds of women MBAs and top companies attend the Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference, which was held virtually this year for the first time in its history.

In direct response to the pandemic, Forté held webinars such as “Don’t Quarantine Your Career” in the spring of 2020 for women from undergrad to seasoned professional about how to manage your career while navigating lockdown and quarantine.

See the breakdown of women’s enrollment across Forté member business schools on the next page.

Christina Griffith
Christina Griffith is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She specializes in covering education, science, and history, and has experience in research and interviews, magazine content, and web content writing.