The drive to reach gender parity on Europe’s top-ranked MBA programmes passed some significant milestones this year.

In February, ESCP — with campuses across the continent — was placed eighth out of the European programmes in the FT Global MBA Ranking and recorded an equal male-female split (thus earning a maximum score under the gender criteria).

Now, the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, ranked ninth out of European MBAs in February, reports that its latest intake in September was 51 per cent female, passing parity for the first time. A few other European schools have previously recorded an equal split, but none was so highly ranked for MBAs as ESCP and Saïd.

“Female candidates want to be at a school where gender parity is taken seriously, and prolonged success breeds more success,” says Liam Kilby, associate director for MBA recruitment and admissions at Saïd, which was 14th overall in the 2023 European Business Schools Ranking.

Among measures taken by Saïd to improve gender balance was a survey of alumni to pinpoint barriers to women applying for masters degrees. Financial constraints and family commitments topped the list. The former is being addressed with 10 scholarships to cover fees for MBAs, funded by The Laidlaw Foundation, which helps under-represented people access education; plus three £30,000 scholarships from the Forté Foundation, a non-profit body that supports women into leadership positions.

While precise parity may not be crucial, it is a marker of progress towards equality. One of the reasons it matters is practical: employers are looking for more women with MBAs to fill senior leadership positions. “It is employers that want more women graduates so it is imperative as a business school to be more successful in providing this,” Kilby says.

But business schools still have a long way to go. Only a handful of highly ranked schools globally have reached parity. And even fewer of the schools with large class sizes, such as Saïd, have done so, making its success significant, says Elissa Sangster, chief executive of Forté Foundation.

FT European Business Schools Ranking 2023

Read the ranking and report

However, some in the US — George Washington School of Business, The Wharton School, and Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School — have attracted majority female intakes to their MBAs. “We now have a handful [of schools] that are staying at parity,” Sangster says. “It proves the power in their pipeline of applicants, making the job of maintaining equality considerably easier.”

More broadly, though, the push for parity remains a large challenge for many schools, with considerable barriers to progress — not least the low proportion of women studying finance, science and mathematics at postgraduate level.

The number of male students applying to graduate business education programmes in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (Emea) for the 2022-23 academic year outnumbered women by 120,304 to 111,005 across 123 institutions surveyed by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the accreditation body. The percentage gap has widened since 2018-19, when the AACSB recorded 79,020 male applications versus 77,376 female across 112 schools in the Emea region.

It is of little comfort that the Emea imbalance is slightly less on average than in both the Americas and Asia Pacific, according to the AACSB. The pandemic boom in MBA applications in 2020 did not alter the share of women who applied to business school worldwide, with demand from men growing as strongly as it did from women.

The latest figures from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the MBA applications test administrator, show that the median percentage of applications from women was no different in 2023 than in 2019, at 39 per cent of the total.

“In Europe, more programmes reported declines in applications from women than reported increases in 2023,” says Andrew Walker, director of research analysis and communications at GMAC, adding that the European percentage split is little different to other regions worldwide.

One way schools have tried to build more balanced classes is by making MBA study more flexible. Trinity Business School, in Dublin, launched its two-year flexible executive MBA programme in 2021, allowing students to complete coursework part-time and study remotely to fit around work schedules. Its 2023 intake is 60 per cent female.

“We recognise that fitting an MBA into an already intensive work-life balance is a significant challenge for women in senior management roles,” says Trinity MBA admissions manager Eoghan O’Sullivan. New technology means that these students “can experience the classroom setting from the convenience and comfort of their home, office or while they are travelling”.

Course content is a factor in some schools doing better on gender balance than others — for example, those offering MBAs with a focus on the luxury goods industry. These institutions, such as Essec Business School’s Paris campus, benefit from a sector that hires proportionately more women into senior leadership roles.

The school is now trying to learn lessons from this programme to increase female participation in its digital leadership MBA track, using its MBA ambassador programme to offer role models to potential students.

David Sluss, management professor at Essec, says European schools have an advantage of more international intakes than their US peers, with more applicants from countries where women are often in leadership roles. “The European education system focuses on openness, so gender parity forms a natural part of its values,” he says.

Alma Berruecos, head of business insights at Mexico City-based ad agency Founders, previously worked for the ad agency Ogilvy in Miami and moved to Paris for Essec’s global MBA. She was attracted by its luxury focus and the chance to work on a different continent. “I have moved around a lot in my career,” she says. “I considered NYU Stern, but that would have kept me in the north American sector.”

Alma Berruecos
Alma Berruecos studied for Essec’s global MBA, drawn to its focus on luxury

Although high-ranking US schools are little better than their European counterparts at building more gender-balanced classes, Saïd’s Kilby looks to the top-placed American MBA providers for inspiration. The Wharton School achieved gender balance two years ago, he notes.

Aliya Nur Babul, a start-up investor and founder, who has a PhD in astrophysics from New York’s Columbia University, began the Saïd MBA in September. Babul was the only woman out of five students on her PhD programme, and one of a small minority of women on her undergraduate course at the University of Toronto.

“I chose Oxford in part because it is known for its emphasis on social impact and its emphasis on women in leadership,” she says, adding that her goal is to begin a venture capital fund investing in female-led businesses.

Babul’s other options were US schools: Yale and MIT. She notes that the issue of gender balance is discussed more often in the US business education market, but she is not convinced this produces better balance on MBAs.

“In some senses, [US schools] are more vocal about trying to make things more gender balanced, but I don’t think they have thought so closely about what leads to those imbalances,” Babul says. “If you are to look at applications from a woman who doesn’t have exactly the same qualifications as a man, not enough people ask why that might be the case, that this might be because of gender imbalances elsewhere in the education system,” she adds.

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