By Pauline Millard


Last week the Ellevate team and some of the network’s members went to Washington D.C. to take part in the White House’s Working Families Business Schools Convening.

It was a day of talks about the state of women and business schools, led by Senior White House officials, deans of the country’s top business schools and human resource executives who recruit from MBA programs.

Although women have become more equal players in the labor market and have increasingly entered previously male-dominated occupations like medicine and law, they have made fewer strides in business careers. In 2014, only 5% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies were female, and in 2013 only 17% of board seats in the Fortune 500 were held by women.A recent study by a global organization to accredit business schools found that women represented only 38% of students enrolled in North American MBA programs. Among specialized master’s degree programs offered by business schools, however, men and women were enrolled at essentially equal rates.These are a few things we learned from the panels over the course of the day.
1. Business Schools Are Taking Women SeriouslyMany of the deans at the White House event were from schools that, over the past year and half, created a set of best practices for business schools that aim to expand opportunities for women in business and to adapt to the 21st century workforce. These best practices include everything from modernizing curriculum so that case studies and guest speakers reflect modern workplaces, facilitating mentorships and sponsorships, and helping facilitate re-entry into the workforce.The guidelines, signed by the deans of business schools at Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford and 43 other colleges and universities, aim to expand opportunities that will positively affect women’s interests when it comes to graduate business education.

The best practices were released at the same time that the Council of Economic Advisers released a new Issue Brief that highlighted the barriers that women face in business careers and the need for business schools and the business community to work together to encourage women’s success.

2. Women Are Playing A Larger Role in The Labor Market

Women have entered the labor market in large numbers over the past few decades and now make up nearly half of our workforce. Today, in more than six out of 10 households with children, both parents work. In 1970, it was only four in 10.

The U.S. labor market has not fully adapted to these changes. Many businesses don’t recognize that many of their workers—men and women—need to to balance home and professional responsibilities. Workers are often left choosing jobs based on flexibility and structure of work, rather than the job best suited to their skills.

3. STEM Education Is Vital To Creating Future Business Leaders

Long before a woman sets foot in an MBA program, the stage needs to be set for her to feel comfortable there. Members of the panel felt that STEM education for girls is the foundation for being an entrepreneur, since math and problem-solving skills are keys to being successful in business.

They also said that STEM is important because it gives girls permission to take risks, not back down from challenges and not be afraid to fail. That way they’ll have the confidence to ask for promotions and step up in other ways in their professional careers.

Business schools have long struggled to attract more women. One way to keep the issue in the front of the mind is metrics. Metrics change behavior, even if they’re not mandated. Showing measurements incites changes.

4. Business Education Should Start Much Earlier

There is also the issue of whether the MBA comes too late, in this era of technology, hack-a-thons and programs such as Girls Who Code, etc. Should we, instead, be investing in business classes in high school?

5. The Traditional MBA Comes At A Time When Many Women Start to Have Children

One issue that women face is that the average age for entering business school is age 30, which coincides with when women start having kids. Managing a full course load, internships and family life with small children may be too much of a challenge for women, and they may choose not to enroll.

6. The MBA May Need A Makeover

The structure of the MBA may also be an issue. After all, the degree was designed in the 1960s as a two-year, residential program. Several of the deans were in favor of changing the structure, to make it less monolithic. Part-time, online, or making the MBA an extension of an undergraduate degree were all options that they have considered, but there were concerns.

Some deans felt that changing the structure of the degree would be difficult, since it could affect the annual rankings of business schools. These rankings are based on the starting salaries of newly minted MBAs, many of whom choose to go into finance.

7. Life After After The MBA Is A Key Selling Point

Once students receive their MBA, deans wanted to make sure there was value to being an alum. They envision turning the MBA into a life-long educational relationship with on-demand connections, education and networks. Some schools already offer this, such as the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

8. Business Schools Want To Address Mid-Career Plateaus And Re-Entering The Workforce

Mid-career challenges for women and the career plateaus they can face were a new issue for business schools, as was re-entering the workforce. For many women, there will come a time when they will need a skills refresh, and as a business school alumna, that should be available to them. While none of the panelists had concrete plans for addressing this issue, there was a general consensus that it was very much front of mind for them.

9. The Future Looks Bright..and Diverse

For women who may be considering pursuing a graduate business degree, there’s a lot of good news. Business schools seem to be very much in touch with the state of the modern workforce and the challenges its female students face. By encouraging and actively recruiting a diverse student body, they are, by extension, playing a key role in creating in a more productive and profitable workforce.

MBA alumnae should also be pleased to know that business school career services are eager to work with them. Resources and programs may have changed since an alum left the classroom, and tapping into a familiar network may be an easy way to get back on track with their careers after an absence.

For a list of the business schools that signed the best practices, click here.