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How Business Schools Can Attract More Women

Woman in business schoolBusiness schools have long tried to convince more women to enter their hallowed halls. While they've made significant strides, there are still fewer women than men earning MBA degrees. This imbalance can be attributed to two factors. First, business students usually gain work experience before entering graduate school, which means they are generally between 27 and 31 years old -- the same age many women start having families. Second, there are few women role models in business, which makes a career in the field seem inaccessible.

So, what will it take to get more women into MBA programs? Here's what business schools need to do:

Bring in more women role models

Having other women classmates, of course, makes a difference. Seeing other women with similar interests and goals, who have carved a road to the top already, makes a career seem more possible. Before you can get women classmates, you have to have more women professors and administrators. It shows that women are a part of this world and that there's a place for them at the table. Having a female director and dean attracts women to the program at University of North Georgia's Mike Cottrell College of Business, writes the school's director Kelli Crickey in an e-mail. "As a woman director, I am also able to candidly talk about my experience," she adds, "of working full time and earning an MBA early in my marriage and career and how the experience helped me take on opportunities and build my earning potential."

Be flexible

Instead of forcing women to choose between having kids and pursuing a career in business, schools are beginning to accommodate moms, whether they are pregnant or already have kids. In fact, more women are purposely planning their pregnancies and deliveries during the full-time MBA program. Professors are postponing assignments and exams, and classmates are babysitting to help these women multitask. If it really does take a village, then some women are finding theirs at b-school. (You can read more about this trend in my recent piece on MBA moms).

Provide support

Campus clubs exclusively for women pursuing careers in business have existed for some years now, and they do a lot to provide a sense of community. They also often help women uncover job leads. Women can get together to share their concerns, study, prep for job interviews, and organize events, such as discussions with female business leaders or job treks. For example, the Simon Women in Business club at University of Rochester's Simon Business School plays an active role on campus, writes school spokesperson Karen Dowd in an e-mail. The school is sure to offer women the chance to learn from the experiences of others, she adds. "This past year we held several support meetings for women students to help in navigating the vagaries of the job market and business world," writes Dowd. "One of our senior women alumni is a member of our Board of Trustees (Gwen Greene of JP Morgan) and she addresses our women students each year."

Recruit women into the program

The most obvious way to get more women into your classroom is to court them. After all, if they don't know about business school, they may never dream of earning an MBA or using it to enter a career in business. Many business schools work with organizations, such as the Forte Foundation, which promotes women in business, to locate female candidates who show potential with strong quantitative and leadership skills. A senior administrator at the Simon School actually sits on the board of the Forte Foundation and recruits candidates through its various programs. Some schools seek out undergraduate women who excel in quant courses or have already taken on jobs at investment banks. The point is to find women who could shine in business and make them aware of both their potential and MBA programs, say experts.

Offer scholarships or lower costs

Compared to undergraduate programs, graduate business schools offer a paltry number of scholarships or merit-based discounts to students. But there are some exceptions. With a little research, you can find a few scholarships aimed at women, including the Forte Fellows program. Another comes from the American Business Women's Association. Some students, including women, seek out cheaper programs. "Our Cottrell MBA program is one of the most affordable in the region which helps alleviate some of the stress regarding cost that all students, especially those with young families, may be worried about," writes Crickey. An affordable program that offers a solid return on investment will be more appealing for both men and women.

In general, if business schools hope to bring in more women, then they need to make their programs more women-friendly. That means having visible women leaders on campus, providing flexibility and support for maintaining work-life balance, and providing a built-in support network through clubs and the like. Of course, it wouldn't hurt if businesses themselves -- you know the ones who would be hiring women MBAs -- did more of the same, too.