FOR YEARS, PURSUING AN MBA has meant joining a mostly men's club. Male students have long been the norm at business school, and even today only one-third of students are women.
The sparse presence of women is all the more striking when you consider other fields. As a 2006 American Council on Education study found, women make up more than half of those enrolled in medicine and other health science professional programs. Overall, women make up 58 percent of total graduate-level enrollment nationwide.
One might think that hard-nosed business people, especially, would understand the need for hard-nosed meritocracy, regardless of factors such as gender. Indeed, evidence suggests, organizations perform better when they make efforts to include women in their senior ranks. A recent Stanford Business School study showed that gender and racial diversity enables a team to better manage conflict. Reason would dictate that the presence of women in a leadership meeting, such as a board meeting or critical planning meeting, would carry the same effect.
But such organizations are the exception. Nearly 40 years after legal and societal struggles for gender equity, women remain largely absent from top corporate ranks. These days at a typical Fortune 500 firm, fewer than 4 percent of corporate officers are women. And fully 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies reported no women as top earners, found the research group Catalyst.
For business educators, these numbers represent not just a failure of the system, but a call to action.
The goal of any educational program ought to be attracting the best and the brightest, period-regardless of gender, ethnic background, or geography. A program of education that consistently shuns any group of people will lose their potential contributions.
Right now, MBA schools are missing about half the boat. To achieve a more balanced enrollment in MBA programs, educators should recognize three reasons that MBA programs attract relatively few women.
One has to do with the time of life most people pursue an MBA. Before starting a traditional MBA program, most schools encourage prospective students to get two to five years of business experience. Part-time executive programs typically aim for people with eight to 15 years of experience.
Nothing wrong with that. By nature, an MBA is an applied degree. The best programs ask students to wrestle with theoretical, academic issues in the context of business. Students are better able to succeed when grounded in real-world business experience. Inadvertently, however, the system seems perfectly designed to weed out women whose life-work choices may involve rearing children.
A second factor relates to the perception of business programs and the business world at large. At a time of seemingly highly publicized corporate scandals, environmental disasters, and ruthless cost cutting, it's all too easy to conclude that the business world is led by cutthroat, heartless, ethically challenged people who are oblivious to any societal mission beyond turning a profit.
A third reason goes back to the lack of women in high-level positions in the business world. After a conscious or unconscious cost-benefit analysis, women may conclude that earning an MBA is not worth the time, energy, and money. They may ask: Why go through all the trouble for the right to compete on a slanted playing field?
In coming years, we may see the proportion of women in business schools rise simply due to demographic changes. As the overall proportion of female higher education students grows, so too will the proportion of women MBA graduates. But business schools have an obligation to understand and address the gap now, to meet the needs of students from a wide range of backgrounds.
Some business schools already have begun to change-not just to attract women but also to reflect shifts in the business community.
Many more business students yearn for tools to become entrepreneurs, for example. Greater MBA-level training for independent- minded businesspeople could help reach a variety of underrepresented groups, such as minorities from thriving entrepreneurial cultures.
In another shift, b-schools are more apt to think about social responsibilities. Sure, profitability and earning shareholder value must remain a primary goal for any business. But as businesses from Microsoft to BP have discovered, it's smart from a business standpoint-and the right thing to do-to consider whether companies are part of the solution or the problem with global issues.
As a result, business schools now are undergoing a healthy transition toward helping students prepare to serve as globally responsible business leaders.
This idea opens up a whole new world for what an MBA can mean. One example of the new direction is the Peace Through Commerce initiative by The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. It highlights such b-school initiatives as: a microlending program that gives hope to very small enterprises offering a way out of grinding poverty in developing nations; and an initiative that allowed a number of Afghanistan women to attend courses in the United States, providing them with management and economic insights.
Other nontraditional features can be built into a business curriculum, from exposure to learning abroad to partnering with nonprofits to develop inner-city business enterprises. MBA programs can get out of the lecture hall rut with small classes and a collaborative learning environment.
At a pragmatic level, there are ways to design programs to reach out to underserved populations. At the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University (Calif.), we have a program geared for the woman who stepped out of the workforce and now seeks to come back in. Call her the business mom. Our research has found that executives typically believe it takes those who stepped out of the workforce up to four years to get back up to speed.
To better serve the returning professional juggling family and work, our part-time program's two-morning-per-week schedule helps with childcare responsibilities. We've found it also appeals to entrepreneurs with flexible work schedules and others, such as those working odd shifts in the healthcare profession, which is dominated by women.
By taking a broader view of the mission of business school and offering flexible learning options, I believe MBA programs can attract a broader array of students, including women. And to me, fostering a more diverse pool of talent is simply good business.
Linda A. Livingstone is dean of the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University (Calif.).