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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

Where are the Women in B-School?

We’re all (well) aware of the gender gap in business, and the dearth of women serving as executives and on boards at the world’s largest companies.

But turns out, the gap doesn’t start in the boardroom—it starts in business school. Though women attend college and grad schools at the same rate as men (in some fields, at a higher rate), they’re notably absent in the country’s top MBA programs.

And the organization that’s trying to change this is Forté Foundation. Founded in 2001, Forté is a collaboration of top companies and business schools working together to change the ratio of women in business—through scholarships, conferences and events, networking opportunities, online resources and career centers, and more. We sat down with Forté's Executive Director, Elissa Ellis-Sangster, to learn more about where the women are, why they’re missing, and what you can do to change it.

What’s the mission of Forté Foundation?

Elissa Ellis-Sangster
Elissa Ellis-Sangster

Our vision is to provide resources and tools for women who are interested in pursuing positions of business leadership. We have a heavy focus on getting more women into MBA programs and educating young women about the benefits of business education and how it applies across many different industries and career paths.

I think sometimes when women think about business careers, they don't always think about becoming an entrepreneur or working at a non-profit—the other paths there are in business besides working on Wall Street. There are so many areas in which an MBA is a really relevant degree to have.

Why is business school such a great choice?

In terms of building a network and getting a skill base that's extremely flexible and portable, an MBA is a great way to do that. It gives you insight into multiple industries and multiple functions—and it gives you something that helps you move across those industries. If your industry goes bust, you have a lot of different ways you can take what you've learned and adapt it to go into a different industry or functional area.

I don’t think everyone needs an MBA to be a CEO, either—there’s a lot of different ways to get to the top. But I think an MBA gives you that portable and flexible degree, that network, and that access that a lot of other career paths don't provide.

The numbers of men and women in medical and law schools is nearly equal, but not in business schools. Why is that?

I think there’s a number of contributing factors—like a lack of role models and a concern about quantitative unpreparedness. Also, when women start talking about their career paths, often business school doesn’t come up. Women didn’t always have someone in their family or their workplace that was saying, “hey, an MBA would be a great idea for you.” Men seem to have gotten that counsel almost automatically.

But I think that timing is also a concern. When you look at women in part-time, executive, and full-time MBA programs, you might see a little bit more parity, but when you look at the top business schools and their full time programs, you still see women lagging behind.

A lot of that has to do with going back to school 2-3 years after undergrad—that’s a much bigger step than enrolling in into medical or law school right after undergrad when you’re not as constrained by family obligations or you’re not supporting yourself financially. There’s also the risk aversion of not wanting to walk into debt and leave a job, and both of those are big steps for women.

Finally, unlike law and medicine, where you know, “I’m going to be a lawyer” or “I’m going to be a doctor,” “I’m going to be a business person” brings with it a level of uncertainty, which adds to the complications for women.

What about the economy—has that been a factor in recent years?

The economy definitely makes it tough. For women, leaving a job when you have one to go back to school in an uncertain economy, is a very tough sell. But I think there’s a number of things we can do: We’ve got to get more women into the pipeline, versus just focusing on the enrollment numbers—we need more women to take the GMAT, more women to think about business school, so we can see the applicant numbers go up.

What advice do you have for women thinking about business school?

Deciding which school is the best fit for you is something that’s really critical. Visit schools, talk to the alumni, talk to current students. Identify what career path you want, and then make sure that school has opportunities for you once you graduate and faculty interested in that area. Don’t try to find a school where you’re going to change everything and make it fit you—make sure that you fit into that school and that it will support you and help you launch into your career.

A lot of people, especially women, make the choice to go local schools, even if it’s not the best fit for them in terms of career interests. But don’t sell yourself short. Don’t stay local because it’s less expensive or because you won’t have to relocate—I think often women make those choices because it's less risky. I would encourage them to take more risk!

And read, read, read, read, read! Read the Wall Street Journal, read Fast Company, read Fortune or Forbes. Even if you don't understand every concept, you’re going to know if you’re excited about reading that every day. It’ll help you understand all the different areas of business and which are interesting to you.

What is next for Forté Foundation?

We are trying to double the size of our organization over the next few years, and that’s going to mean a lot of new programs. We’re going to continue to grow our outreach and our connection to college women and early career women—trying to identify as many of them as we can who are interested and want to pursue an MBA career. We’re digging deeper into what we can do to help women select business schools and prepare for business school, and we’re also working with current MBA women to give them as many opportunities as we can to launch them successfully into their careers.

To learn more about Forté Foundation, check out Check out interviews with business leaders, learn about business schools, and learn how to land your dream job at Forté's Career Lab Virtual Campus.

Photo courtesy of PromoMadrid.