Wharton Reaches A Business School Milestone
Maria |
August 3, 2021

Wharton reported this week that it has reached a milestone – the incoming class of 2023 is 52% female. 

With this, Wharton has become the first really, truly prominent business school in the world to enroll a majority of women. Other institutions have flirted with, and a few have even surpassed, 50% gender parity, but none have the reputation of Wharton. 

On this week’s episode of Business Casual, Maria and Caroline discuss what THEIR  business school experience was like with classes that were only 30% and 20% female respectively and how they see the landscape continuing to change moving forward.

  • Why have business schools historically have had more difficulty reaching gender parity than Med schools and law schools? 
  • How has it evolved to the point where Wharton has now been able to attract the majority of women in its business school class?
  • Is this a sign of what is to come with other business schools? 

Episode Transcript

[00:00:07.630] – John

Hello, everyone. It’s John Byrne with Poets and Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast featuring my co host Maria Wich Vila, and Caroline Diarte Edwards. Of course, Caroline is a former admissions director at INSEAD and a co founder of Fortuna Admissions, while Maria is the founder of Applicant Lab. We had some really interesting news this past week, and let me just put the headline out there. Wharton has become the first really, truly prominent business school in the world to enroll a majority of women in its new full cohort. Now, 52% of the students in Wharton’s new cohort that enters shortly and is in the class of 2023 will be women. That’s a new record. There are other schools that have flirted close to 50% in gender parity and even a few that have exceeded it, but none of the stature, the reputation and the quality of Wharton. So we want to sit back and talk a little bit about how that happened, why it happened and whether or not it’s a harbinger of other things to come at other business schools. And with me, of course, I have two MBAs who went to business school when women represented 25% and low 30% of the population.

[00:01:39.890] – John

I think at INSEAD, Caroline, when you entered, it was about you were one and four, right?

[00:01:45.920] – Caroline

Yeah, it was 20% actually, 20% women. Yeah. It wasn’t very good at all.

[00:01:53.570] – John

What happened? First off, why have business schools historically have had more difficulty reaching gender parity than Med schools and law schools? And then how has it evolved to the point where Wharton has now been able to attract the majority of women in its business school class?

[00:02:15.290] – Caroline

Yeah, that’s a big question. And it’s very interesting, as you say, that a lot of other grad schools have achieved parity much earlier than business schools have been able to. And I think that various things are driving that part of it, I think, is the age factor. So students going into Med school and law school often going in straight from undergrad and therefore at an earlier stage in their careers and their lives than students going into business school. And I think that historically it’s been more challenging for some women to go back to graduate school in the mid to late 20s. They may have other family obligations and so on partners who may not be willing to follow them to business school or support them in that endeavor. So that’s definitely been an issue in the past. And then I think part of it is the changing landscape of the career opportunities that people have coming out of business school. So traditionally, people thought of the opportunity as you go into consulting, you go into investment banking. There are some pretty well one tracks of what you would do after business school, and that has diversified a great deal over the last few years.

[00:03:31.480] – Caroline

And so I think there are more career opportunities that are really attractive to women who may not some women who might not have been so turned on by the idea of going off to Wall Street post MBA.

[00:03:44.660] – John

Right. Maria, what’s your take on all this?

[00:03:48.650] – Maria

Obviously, I think it’s great. I think one of the biggest hurdles that women have faced is just the stereotype that a lot of men have of women of being less capable or less intelligent or whatever those horrible stereotypes are. And I think if you have more women in the classroom, especially in a discussion based curriculum where you can actually hear the women’s thoughts and they have a chance to present their analyses and really defend what they’re doing, then there’s an opportunity for, I think, the men, even if they have subconscious biases, to at least start to see women as equals and as peers. I think that sort of representation really matters not only in terms of the students themselves sort of realizing, like, hey, maybe I shouldn’t be sexist, but I think it also matters in terms of, as Caroline said, as women have started seeing that there are more pathways out of the MBA program. And I I think think, for example, some of the business schools even started I know Harvard, there was the Dean when I was there, a guy named Kim Clark. He made a concerted effort to try to bring more women into leadership roles within HBS itself, because as you might imagine, in the earlier days when women were hired, they were hired as secretaries or they would grade papers.

[00:05:05.030] – Maria

But there were very few women on the faculty. And when they were on the faculty, it was for like HR, right before HBS accepted women, there was a program at Radcliffe College for business, but it was only for human resources management. And so I think that the other in addition to having lots of women in the classroom, I think it also helps when schools have more women as professors, as people within the administration with significant power, because I think it helps knock down those stereotypes.

[00:05:36.890] – John

Yeah. Maria, when you entered Harvard, what was the percentage of women in your class?

[00:05:42.300] – Maria

It was just under 35%. I think it was somewhere between 30 to 35.

[00:05:47.200] – John

Right. Which is, you know, that’s where, frankly, many schools are today, about a third, and there are more schools that are 40% and above. But 52% is quite an achievement. One of the points that the Dean of Wharton makes, Erica James, is that when she studied women in executive leadership positions back in the mid 20 00, 20 07, she did a study. And what she was looking at was how investors responded when an announcement of a female CEO appointment was made versus male counterparts, and also how they responded when different announcements were made by female CEOs to the concerns of their businesses. And she found, frankly, that the results among investors were negative when the announcement of a female CEO was appointed and they were negative when the CEO, who is female, made any pronouncements regarding the business interest. But maybe even the more important I found was that out of that study, there are only 17 women out of 529 over a full decade of the study. And a conclusion that she drew is that when there’s only a few, it works to the disadvantage of those who are in the game. And when there is sort of a critical mass of people, it works to their advantage.

[00:07:22.880] – John

And her point essentially is now with majority of this incoming cohort being female, it’s no longer an issue. In other words, it’s off the table. And I wonder what the two of you think about that.

[00:07:37.860] – Caroline

Well, that would be great. If it is the case, if it becomes sort of a self perpetuating thing, let’s hope that is true, that it sort of reached a tipping point and the classroom and the walking experience will continue to attract that sort of proportion of women. I mean, clearly, as you mentioned, there’s a lot of progress to be made at other schools, so it’s not yet an industry wise achievements. Let’s hope that one day we’ll be discussing that across the top schools that they will have achieved this. But for sure, the schools get some momentum on this, and I’m sure that this will attract further women applicants. They’re getting some great PR from this achievement, and the school is clearly sort of stake to claim as being the first top business school to reach this threshold. And it’s a very impressive achievement. So I’m sure they will continue to attract a good stream of women, but we need to build the pipeline for the whole industry and not just for a single school.

[00:08:46.950] – John

True. Absolutely. Maria, do you think we’re going to see more schools hit gender parity in the near future?

[00:08:53.060] – Maria

Yes, I do. And I think that it’s like I said, it’s like a chicken and egg type of thing. I think you guys were making the point that once as a woman, if you look and you see like, oh, it’s only 30% women, like maybe it’s going to be a hostile environment, maybe this isn’t for me, but if you start to see that it’s 45, 50% women, my hope would be that it would attract more women instead of with trepidation, perhaps of am I going to be welcome in the classroom? What’s my experience going to be?

[00:09:24.050] – John

Yeah, exactly. And that’s what the study showed that Erica James had done with another co author. She basically found that when the representation of a group, any group falls below a certain proportional threshold, there are damaging implications for how they’re perceived as a minority population, which is kind of fascinating.

[00:09:46.370] – Caroline

Something I would add is this is the result of and Erica James has been rightfully credited with obviously a big drive over the past year to make this happen. But this achievement is thanks to many years of work that the schools have been putting in. And my colleague Judith Fedora, head of admissions in Water, a few years back. I recall 20 years ago how she was working with Forte and with I think it’s 85 Broads and different organizations, and I was doing the same. It is yet. Right. And it’s been a long haul to push that number up. And the schools have been diligently cracking away at this goal for a long, long time. And working with those specific organizations are looking to build that female pipeline, offering specific scholarships to women, doing women focused marketing events. It’s really been a long haul and a key goal for most top stores for many, many years.

[00:10:52.510] – John

Yeah, it’s really true. And what’s kind of interesting is I think Erica James obviously had a big role in this, but I also think that last year, which definitely was impacted by the pandemic. So you got to take these numbers with a grain of salt. As a result, Wharton brought in a class 41% were women, and that was a six percentage point decline from the previous year when they brought in 47%. So I would not be surprised if there was a reawakening or redoubling of their efforts over these many years because years ago, Wharton, in fact, from what I recall, was the first major school to get over 40%. And last year, when Wharton was at 41%, Dartmouth Tuck was at 49, Stanford at 47, Duke at 46, Harvard at 44, Michigan Ross and NYU Stern, both at 43, which had to be somewhat a sounding of alarm bells about this. So I think it led to probably a real reinforcement of these year long efforts, and that paid off in dividends with this record 52% of the class being female. There is a competitive race for this, I think. Right. I mean, one school will look at this and say, well, that’s an incredible achievement.

[00:12:20.760] – John

What are we doing? And I think it will get more attention at schools that are far behind, more particularly than even the schools that are above 45% already. And that’s why we’ll probably see even a greater effort to attract more women to business careers now. Do you think also part of this is are we seeing the beginnings of the true cracks in the glass ceiling and that women are seeing more opportunities in business than they had before?

[00:12:51.050] – Maria

I wish I could say that that part were true. I think one of the sort of bummers about this is that even when my class was at, say, 30% to 35%, we graduated over 15 years ago. And so we’re now at a point where a lot of women would a lot of people are in their mid 40s and are sort of reaching those upper levels. And I don’t know that the women are necessarily able to keep up with corporate America has not necessarily. I think the business schools are trying to prime the pump. Now it’s up to corporate America to actually pick up on these women graduates and actually give them feasible opportunities. So I think women today make up roughly 50% of workers in general management positions, sort of at the mid levels. But only 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and only about 23. 25% of board seats are given to women. Now this is better. Ten years ago it was 2%. 2.4%, and then 20 years ago it was less than 1%. So definitely 8% is better than 1%. But it’s still not even close. There’s a big time shift, I think, between the women graduating in these percentages from the top business schools and then not translating.

[00:14:11.550] – Maria

But I don’t know that I’m seeing I think some of the larger services firms are trying to make a really concerted effort, like the consulting firms and banks are trying to make a concerted effort to do these sorts of things. But I think the sort of typical Fortune 500 company, they might not be following along. So I think there are definitely more opportunities for women. But I don’t think that 41% 44% of opportunities for senior women in business senior roles are out there. I do think, though, that this is a big reason why I became an entrepreneur, honestly, is that I tried my hand in the sort of startup tech world, very broken culture. Other people were all drinking beers and watching the USC football games, and that wasn’t my thing. And I had a quantitative background and I had studied a couple of semesters of computer science in College. And so when I would weigh in with like, hey, why don’t we do this to the code? And they were like, basically I literally told shut up. And I was called very nasty names throughout my career at startups. And so I was like, what am I doing?

[00:15:21.930] – Maria

I’m going to start my own business. And so I think that is if any woman is listening to this and she’s thinking, well, I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t go to business school because only 8% of the Fortune CEOs. But I think the business school is actually very valuable for preparing you to become an entrepreneur and then just doing it yourself, free of those prejudices.

[00:15:41.510] – John

Yeah, exactly right. And it is true what you say. I know McKinsey banner, BCG and Deloitte in particular have had very robust initiatives to recruit more women in the doors. In fact, McKinsey has been a long term sponsor of our preMBA networking festival. That is their frankly stated reason they want to get more women consultants. And I think it’s true of the investment banks, too. And these are two industries that had long been totally male dominated and where women tended not to want to work consulting, in part because of the travel demands and banking, in part because of the huge number of hours that you have to clock and basically have no life to work for many of the investment banks or investment management firms. And solely this means that these cultures have to change and adapt on some level to accommodate not only women, but other young people who just don’t want to be on the road four, five days a week or to be working 70, 80 hours a week, including weekends and an investment banking job. So I think that this reverberates throughout the entire chain, meaning on the recruitment level, on the business school level, and then on the end level where employers have to change their own behaviors to attract more women.

[00:17:28.430] – John

So it’s a massive change, and it has slowly. And I think the Wharton accomplishment this year is really exceptional because I think it does send a real big signal to other not only the business schools, but frankly, the companies that are hiring the NBA, don’t you think?

[00:17:48.610] – Caroline

Yeah, absolutely. And I hope that, as you say, that will gradually trick people through. I do think that the corporate culture in the US is incredibly tough. I’ve worked in different countries around the world and moved to the US about six years ago and hadn’t fully appreciated how different the environment is in the US and the work culture. And honestly, I don’t know how women with kids and careers manage to juggle everything in the US because I gave birth to all of my children in France, where I had very generous maternity benefits, very long maternity leaves. I could then go back to work afterwards and tell my employer I’m going to work part time. That’s what I want to do. And then when I’m ready to go back full time, you have to take me back full time. And I had seven weeks holiday a year. So when the kids were sick or they were on school vacation and I used to be there, I could do that right. It just gives you so much more flexibility. And I really don’t know how women manage it in the US because you don’t have all of those benefits.

[00:19:02.650] – Caroline

And I think that has to change to support women who are often juggling many different responsibilities.

[00:19:10.710] – John

Yeah, that’s a really good point, because I think a lot of career choices are made or not made as a result of these policies. And in Europe, there’s a much more compassionate and more generous attitude when women want to take a break and have children, which is, let’s face it, the only miracle in life is to give birth to another. And in the US, we’re really backwards. And yet I wonder if you were to look at senior leadership positions in Europe versus the US and whether or not those more compassionate and thoughtful maternity policies have led to more women in senior leadership positions in Europe than they are in the US. I don’t know what the numbers are well.

[00:20:05.390] – Caroline

It varies a lot by country. In Scandinavia, where they’ve had rules around the percentage of women at different levels in organizations and on boards and so on. And that’s had a tremendous impact. So much more parity in those countries than some other parts of Europe. And Southern Europe is definitely more challenging for women, where the culture is more still. Whilst the government policies may be very female friendly, the culture of companies can still be quite Matcho. And the still discrimination is alive and well, unfortunately, in many organizations.

[00:20:49.370] – John

Yeah. And I also should point out that Wharton has made this accomplishment in the year when applications went up, they didn’t go up a lot. I think it was about two and a half percent. But the previous year applications at Wharton were up like 21%. So the fact that they were still up again was significant. I think we’re going to see much bigger increases at Harvard and Stanford, which were less likely to benefit from the pandemic surge because Harvard’s applications were pretty much closed off because they only had two rounds and Stanford didn’t extend its round. And the other interesting thing in the class profile at Warden was the fact that the school achieved record average GMAT scores for the class and a record median score for the class. The median of this class is 740, which is astounding that’s ten points over the Harvard Business School median at 730. And the average now is 733, which matches Stanford’s average of last year. And Stanford historically has had the highest average class GMAT for any prestigious MBA program in the world. What do you two make of that big record jump? Because if you look at the Gmail scores at Wharton last year, they were actually fell by ten points, and so now they’re up by eleven points to 733.

[00:22:24.030] – John

Is that a number you manage in MBA admissions, Maria?

[00:22:28.690] – Maria

Well, I’m going to defer to my colleague here, Caroline, who actually was in charge of that. But I don’t know. I think, first of all, comparing it to last year isn’t fair for anyone. Last year it was just a weird mutant year. Yeah. So I think that was true for everyone. But yeah, Carol, here’s what I’m basing this on. I think that some schools do try to manage that number because I have seen certain schools give out higher scholarships to people who have significantly above average GMAT scores, which leads me to believe that I think some programs try to lure away higher people who have like, otherwise an identical profile to someone else. But maybe they have like a 760, they might get a scholarship to some other school. And sometimes I think I wonder if because there’s no other difference between these two candidates, but one got a scholarship and one didn’t. And the only difference is the GMAT score. So sometimes I wonder, like they might have both gotten in, but one gets the scholarship. And I wonder if part of that is to try to lure the person to tip the scales more in one direction.

[00:23:34.710] – Maria

But, Caroline, what was your experience?

[00:23:37.890] – Caroline

Yeah, I think what we did at Water, I don’t think that they are trying to manage that number up. I think that it’s a reflection of it being that they’ve had an incredible batch of applicants. It’s been a very competitive year, I think, and the best candidates have had fantastic GMAT scores. It’s a double edged sword having that kind of high GMAT, because on one hand, it looks good. It looks like you’ve got a fantastic cohort of super smart people coming to the school and plays into the rankings and so on. But the school will also be aware that it can have a deterrent effect. Right. It can deter very good candidates who don’t have that, Stella GMAT, who actually may have fantastic profiles and much more interesting profiles than some of the people who apply up the 760s and 770s. It can actually deter them from applying. So it’s not always a wholly positive thing for the school. So I don’t think that they have sought to push that up. I think it’s been a byproduct of the pool that they’ve had.

[00:24:45.070] – John

Yeah. And, you know, a lot of schools are just telling me their apps were up again. At UT McCombs, the applications were up 15% Incidentally, and at Haas, they were up 8%. So we’re seeing a continuation of the surge that did occur with the pandemic at many schools. And then there are some schools that I think they’re just a little bit because they have such a big increase the previous year. It’s going to be really interesting to see what the Harvard and Stanford numbers look like as well as the class profiles. Now, Wharton is the first big school to release its class profile. So that’s why we know that 52% of the incoming cohort will be women and why we know that they posted record average and median GMAT scores never before achieved by the school’s previous students. So there you have it. Well, I will say kudos to Wharton for this incredible achievement. It’s a big deal. I think it will be looked at by a lot of other Deans and admission directors and will heat up the war for talent from women to enter their programs. And Maria, I think you actually raised the question I hadn’t thought of for years.

[00:26:09.710] – John

Harvard and Stanford have really been among the most generous schools offering scholarship aid to students. And typically both Harvard and Stanford maintain that they offer their scholarships only on the basis of need and not merit. And almost every other school in the world offers scholarship money largely on the basis of merit, essentially buying high GMATs and buying candidates that might otherwise choose another school to go to. Ward has been a laggard in the scholarship races. And it makes me wonder now if Wharton really anti up this past year on the scholarship side to get that 52% number I have to believe Wharton had to because I have to believe that Wharton stole some of these women from Harvard and Stanford this year and had to do it with some very aggressive scholarship money. And I hadn’t thought of that before. So. Maria, thank you.

[00:27:11.670] – Maria

I wonder if it’s more that they’re saving them for being poached by Booth, because in my just anecdotally I don’t have any scientific background. I’ve just seen Booths be super aggressive with people that I think they think have also gotten into Wharton. And so I wonder if they’re matching it more to prevent people from leaving them to go to Booth or maybe even Columbia.

[00:27:34.150] – John

Really good.

[00:27:35.180] – Maria

We don’t know. Right. It’s a mystery.

[00:27:37.120] – John

It’s a mystery now. But believe me, I’m going to get down to it.

[00:27:40.460] – Maria

I have no doubt.

[00:27:41.610] – John

I’m going to call up everybody and I’m going to figure this one out because I think it makes so much sense. And you’re right, Chicago. Booth has been incredibly aggressive because they’ve had a lot of money by having received, really, the largest single gift ever given to a business school by David Booth. And a good amount of that money is channeled into getting the best possible students. And they’ve been far more aggressive than Wharton and been trying to compete with Wharton, particularly for people who are interested in finance, after all, because it’s a quantity school like Warren. Good point.

[00:28:13.340] – Maria

So I just wanted to say that this discussion about gender parity, it’s not simply fueled by some sort of Liberal, bleeding heart social justice warrior thing. Studies have actually shown that female investors outperform their male counterparts and that female CEOs tend to outperform their male counterparts. And so the data as more and more women get opportunities. My hope is that the data will start backing this up, that this isn’t just something that is being pursued simply out of the goodness of people’s hearts. And they’re trying to swage their guilt about centuries of oppression. It actually the numbers actually back up that women perform just as well, if not better, when they are given positions of power.

[00:28:59.990] – John

Yeah, that’s really good and a very important point because some people might listen to our discussion and how, frankly, how gleeful we are over Wharton’s accomplishment and think that it’s oh, it’s a bunch of Duke ears and Liberal people applauding the school that has done this politically correct or whatever.

[00:29:23.090] – Maria

But it’s actually the numbers are backing it up.

[00:29:27.870] – John

Good point. All right, hey. Thanks for the really great discussion. Maria and Caroline, always a pleasure. And for all of you, thanks for listening to Business Casual. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants.

Wharton Reaches A Business School Milestone
Maria |
August 3, 2021


New around here? I’m an HBS graduate and a proud member (and former Board Member) of AIGAC. I considered opening a high-end boutique admissions consulting firm, but I wanted to make high-quality admissions advice accessible to all, so I “scaled myself” by creating ApplicantLab. ApplicantLab provides the SAME advice as high-end consultants at a much more affordable price. Read our rave reviews on GMATClub, and check out our free trial (no credit card required) today!