Overcoming Gender Disparity During the Application Process & Beyond
In 2017, women’s enrollment in MBA programs reached 37.4% on average, according to data from the Forté Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to increasing women’s access to business education and opportunities. But many female MBA students still experience gender disparities when applying and as a student. Get an inside look at the application process and life as a student from two female MBA graduates, along with tips and resources on how to get into b-school, thrive as a student, and find success after graduation.
Women and the MBA Application Process
Business schools want to find the most qualified and best-fit candidates for their programs based on merit, but they’re doing so in a social context. This can make it difficult to ignore the ways in which women and men could behave or be perceived differently. When preparing for the application process, women MBA applicants need to be aware of these biased perceptions in order to put their best foot forward.
The following section takes a close look at some of the challenges female MBA graduates Lydia Poon and JF Garrard encountered during the application process as well as what they learned from these experiences so you can avoid common pitfalls.
Feelings of self-doubt
All MBA applicants are evaluated on their leadership, resourcefulness, engagement and post-MBA career goals, but they’re also evaluated on their analytical skills, which can be nerve-racking for women. Lydia recalls feelings of self-doubt during the interview phase, which may have resulted in her not highlighting some of her biggest accomplishments. “While I had a well-crafted and rehearsed reason for wanting the MBA, I still had a bit of an inferiority complex that I didn’t major in economics or business or accounting, or have a business career before applying,” she says.
Lydia’s feelings are common among female MBA applicants, but the important lesson here is that all experience is good experience when applicants talk about it in terms of transferable skills. In Lydia’s case, because she didn’t take the traditional path to an MBA, she was able to bring fresh perspective and unique insights to the classroom that many of her cohorts couldn’t offer.
Not applying to every school you're seriously interested in
When looking over the requirements of numerous MBA programs, JF felt like because she hadn’t gone above and beyond what was required, there was no use in even applying. “Women tend to underestimate themselves and will not apply unless they have more of X (e.g. experience, high GPA, etc.), but sometimes schools don’t even get applicants that meet the criteria listed,” she notes.
Don’t let insecurities get the best of you. Requirements listed on the admissions website are often malleable, especially if applicants excel in a certain area. If you’re unsure of what you bring to the table, talk to professors, mentors, MBA grads, or even current MBA students to see how your experience relates to the program’s requirements. Identify the qualities, characteristics and achievements that will add value in an MBA program and focus on those strengths, rather than on what you think you may be lacking.
Underestimating your analytical skills
During the application process, Lydia notes that some schools of interest didn’t make her list because she convinced herself the math portion was too daunting. “I deemed one school too quant-heavy, but there wasn’t really a good reason for me not to apply. I did well on the GMAT and had a strong undergraduate academic background, even it if was in liberal arts,” she says.
Math anxiety and gender has been studied extensively in recent years, and all conclusions show there is no inherent aptitude difference across the sexes. Still, many women feel less confident in their math skills, even when they’re earning better grades than their male counterparts. Have confidence in your grades and test scores. But if you’re really worried, practice makes perfect – regularly do math problems and exercises on your own, enroll in additional math classes or workshops, or ask a professor or classmate to work with you one-on-one.
Not communicating your achievements
Lots of women seem averse to talking about themselves, and when it came to the interview process, JF was no exception. “Women need to be aware that if they don’t talk about their accomplishments, no one else will,” she cautions.
If talking about your achievements feels strange, refocus the conversation in your head and practice getting comfortable by talking about yourself with a trusted classmate, friend or family member. Schools want to know what strengths and experience you can bring to classes and future employers, so it’s acceptable to brag in a professional tone.
Comparing yourself to others
When Lydia arrived for her interview, she learned that an older white male with extensive military background would be in the interviewee seat and it threw her self-confidence for a loop. “I felt like he’d already taken a look at my application and decided I wasn’t the right material for that school. Who knows if that was the case, but that was my perception, and I let that shake my confidence and therefore didn’t do so hot on that interview.”
It’s hard not to feel imposter syndrome when you show up for an interview and face someone with more practical knowledge and a vastly different life experience, but this is precisely what gives women an edge. Because MBA programs and CEO chairs are still woefully lacking women, you bring a fresh, unique, and often unheard perspective. Instead of comparing yourself to others, find ways to block out the noise so you can focus on your strengths and accomplishments. When you feel the urge to compare yourself, try power posing, empowerment mantras, or even meditation to clear your head and refocus.
Paying for Your MBA
Now that you’ve made it through the application process, it’s time to think about paying for your degree. In most cases, financial aid is awarded by the school and is based on need, but students can also use external scholarships and fellowships. It’s up to the student, however, to research and secure such opportunities. The following list is a starting point for external financial aid awards.
Eligibility/requirements: This scholarship is available to women pursuing an MBA at a school that hosts C200 Reachouts (a list can be found here). To receive this award, applicants must demonstrate both financial need and merit.
Deadline: February 26
Learn more or apply
Career Development Grants
Eligibility/requirements: The American Association of University Women provides these funds to women undertaking graduate education to change their careers, seek advancement, or reenter the work force.
Amount: Up to $12,000
Opens: August 1
Deadline: December 15
Learn more or apply
The Dodell Women’s Empowerment Scholarship
Eligibility/requirements: The National Council of Jewish Women awards this scholarship to women pursuing an MBA who are at least 25 years old and residents of California.
Deadline: May 1
Learn more or apply
Forté Fellows Program
Eligibility/requirements: Applicants to this program must be women who demonstrate exceptional leadership skills and have been accepted to a Forté-sponsored school. They must also attend the Forté MBA Women Leadership conference and the Financial Services FAST Track conference.
Deadline: Applications go through the sponsor school and are due with the MBA application.
Learn more or apply
Jane M. Klausman Women in Business Scholarship
Eligibility/requirements: Women who are pursuing an MBA and live in a Zonta International district are eligible to apply for this scholarship, provided they are enrolled on a full-time basis.
Amount: Up to $8,000
Opens: February 7
Learn more or apply
Mary Macey Scholarship
Eligibility/requirements: This award is made to women completing an MBA program who plan to work in the grocery industry after graduate. Students must have a 2.0 GPA or higher.
Deadline: June 15
Learn more or apply
Thriving as an MBA Student
Business school is extremely challenging for both men and women, but women often face unique obstacles, such as sexist behavior and inaccurately conceived notions about their abilities. “Academic excellence alone is really not going to cut it,” says Lydia. As a female MBA student, you’re likely to encounter lots of unique situations and challenges while pursuing your MBA. The following tips can help you navigate some of the more common issues and so you can thrive as a student.
Master the cold call
Cold calls are when a professor randomly calls on a student to answer a question, and it’s a common practice in b-schools, especially at top tier universities where this type of participation accounts for a large percentage of a student’s final grade. Women are often worried they’ll be seen as ill-prepared and may even freeze when put in this situation. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to feel comfortable improvising on the fly. The reality of MBA programs is that there will be times where you’re called out. “Nobody has time to be as prepared as they want for every single class,” says Lydia. If a professor calls on you and you’re floundering, have some tricks in your pocket. One option is to ask a counter-question to give yourself a bit more time. Another is to pivot and answer a different, related question for which you’re prepared.
Be honest and authentic
Am I speaking up too much? Not Enough? Is this thought in my head enough of a value-add to the discussion to jump in? Has the moment passed? All these questions regularly raced through Lydia’s head while in class. Female MBA students often face pressure to participate in class while also navigating social or cultural landmines about participation. Lydia describes it as “cultivating a reputation that you’re a strong participator without overdoing it” and recalls that she typically didn’t observe this pressure among the men in her class. Fast Company points out that this balancing act continues after graduation. Don’t let perception get in the way of your success. Instead, focus on being honest and authentic, and let that be your guiding principle.
Get out of your own head
Whether it’s due to social dynamics, media or society, women learn early on to care far more about what people think about them than men, and this can have crippling effects in the competitive environment of b-school. Analyzing what people think of you rarely proves beneficial. Instead of worrying about what others think, focus your energy on things that will actually help you succeed as a student, such as participating in class, mastering the material, and demonstrating leadership.
Take the lead when working as a group
Men tend to take the lead when it comes to group work, leaving women to the role of helper. Don’t automatically “take one for the team” by taking notes or making the slides every time. Doing so will set precedents for future work. “I told group members it would be fairer for a different person to take them each time,” says JF. It’s fine to share the workload, but don’t let yourself fall into a pattern of picking up the behind-the-scenes prep. Make sure you have an opportunity to be the lead, and don’t be afraid to speak up if others try to take it away.
Take the lead during presentations too
Presentations are a vital part of MBA programs yet women may feel as if they have to fight for their time in the spotlight. “The groups I was in were equally male and female,” remembers JF, “but oftentimes the men wanted to present more than the women.” It may be easier to let a male classmate present, but it does a disservice to you. You’ve spent weeks or months learning about the topic, so don’t be afraid to present the knowledge you’ve gained.
Stand your ground when faced with conflict
Conflict is inevitable when working in such pressurized situations as MBA programs, and women are often perceived as being overly emotional when such situations occur. However, a recent study of 55,000 professionals in 90 countries found that women outperform men in almost every measure of emotional intelligence. When faced with conflict, hold your ground. “No matter what the case may be, women have to stand up stronger against men in conflicts,” says JF. “Stating your reason and being logical often does the trick.”
Create a support system
Business school may be one of the more stress-inducing settings you’ve encountered to this point, but you don’t have to go it alone. JF worked full-time while attending school part-time and found support from her coworkers. “My work was very supportive and interested, so I often discussed issues with work colleagues, most of whom were women.” Many business schools also have women’s extracurricular clubs, such as the Women at HBS group at Harvard. Another option is reaching out to an alumna with a similar career who can discuss both the gender disparities and/or challenges related to that path.
Work with your family to find balance
The average age of incoming MBA students is 28 which means school/family balance may be a concern. Some women may want to start a family at this time and others may already have little ones to take care of. Regardless of the specific family situation, it’s helpful to have family buy-in at the start. “Let all family members know that your MBA will take up a lot of time because of classes, homework, and group work,” says JF. “Everyone needs to be willing to shoulder some extra responsibilities while you go to school.”
Job Hunting Tips
You earned your MBA but the journey isn’t over yet – it’s time to find a job and put your knowledge and skills to the test. Women also face unique challenges in this arena, but the tips below are designed to help you navigate the hunting and hiring processes to find a job that’s mutually beneficial for you and your employer.
- Take time to think long-termSo often women feel pressure to have all the answers, and that includes next steps. Upon graduating from an MBA program, women may be tempted to jump at the first career opportunity that comes their way in order to start paying back loans, but it’s important to take time to assess long-term goals rather than just short-term stability. When considering a job offer, carefully think about the fairness of the salary as well as how the role contributes to where you want to go in your professional life.
- Network effectivelyWomen typically encounter more barriers to networking than male counterparts, oftentimes because traditional networking activities usually center around male interests (e.g. golf, sporting events, drinking, etc.). When encountering these outdated modes of connecting, women shouldn’t be afraid to rewrite the rules to fit their strengths. Some women may want to seek out a collaborative project, while others may prefer to start by focusing on building a human connection before discussing business.
- Don’t overly rely on your academicsEven if you went to one of the top MBA programs in the country, employers still want to see that you’re a strong, competent, and curious leader with dynamic ideas on how to take their business forward. A diploma isn’t enough – you’ll need to show prospective employers what you can actually bring to the table.
- Drop the qualifiersA report by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that, in interviews, women tend to talk about their accomplishments in a way that ensures everyone involved gets praised. Men, on the other hand, rarely downplay their successes or abilities. It’s important to be truthful about your experience, but remember that you need to take credit for times when you had good ideas and good execution. It’s okay to say you excelled at something as long as it’s true.
Achieving Success in the Real World
Every person defines success differently, so women shouldn’t try to fit themselves into someone else’s mold. Use the tips below to find out what success means to you so you can start mapping out how to achieve that goal.
Do what you love
Some women may see Chairman and CEO of General Motors Mary Barra as their ultimate role model, while others may look up to the woman who opened her own little bakery shop. It doesn’t always matter where you are on the “corporate ladder” – the important thing is that you’re do something you love and enjoy. Doing so helps avoid burnout, but it also means that you’ll be fully engaged with the work you do because you honestly love it and aren’t just working for a paycheck.
Taking a high-powered, lucrative position may be tempting, but think about your endgame before signing an offer letter. Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, or 20 years from now? Aside from a big paycheck and influence, how does the job get you get closer those goals? If you’re passionate about empowering other women in business, does the company courting you live up to that mission? Develop a career road map that takes into account who you are now and where you want to be later on, and keep it at the forefront of your decision-making process.
Find (and maintain) balance
Many women, especially recent MBA grads may feel pressured to prove themselves by being the first and last at the office every day. While this may still be a measure of hard work in some workplace cultures, it’s important for women to take back their personal time. No business woman can be successful if she isn’t getting proper rest, eating well, and taking care of her physical health. Set limits on your work hours each week and stick to them.
Resources for Business Women
American Business Women’s AssociationABWA has a robust membership roster filled with powerful businesswomen throughout the country. Many come together each year for the annual conference but also stay in touch throughout the year via the organizations’ career connection forums.
Fairy GodBossThis website functions in a similar vein as Glassdoor, but all the job and company reviews are written by women and are for women.
Forté FoundationA non-profit consortium of leading companies and top business schools dedicated to increasing women’s access to business education and opportunities. Women can find information and resources for any phase – pre-MBA, MBA and post-MBA.
Fortuna AdmissionsFortuna Admissions offers consultation service from a team of business school experts, including former MBA admissions directors and staff from some of the top business schools. In addition to services, applicants can find videos, webinars and other helpful resources.
LevoIn addition to other women-specific services, Levo maintains a mentorship program for emerging businesswomen who want to connect to veterans in their field and learn their secrets for success.
Lose the CapeAlexa Bigwarfe & Aubrey Mathis regularly share business tips and advice while also highlighting their humanity in this entertaining weekly podcast.
The National Association of Women Business OwnersNAWBO is a national organization that’s been supporting and empowering female entrepreneurs for four decades. Membership benefits include events, advocacy, and a video library.
The National Association of Women MBAsIn addition to maintaining professional and academic chapters throughout the country, NAWMBA hosts regular conferences and networking events and provides a career center.
PresentPresent is an online networking platform created by Janete Perez, who previously worked on Facebook’s Messenger app. While there are opportunities to find friends for exercise classes or hiking, the app also encourages support of female-led businesses and offers resources.
Systems Saved MeJordan Gill hosts this weekly podcast which focuses on how to use organizational and productivity tactics in business to accomplish more and find work/life balance.
The WingCurrently based in New York City and Washington D.C., the Wing is a co-working and community space designed exclusively to empower and support business women. Amenities include a library, workspaces, food and drinks, regular speakers and events, conference spaces, and a lactation room.
Women on BusinessThis established daily blog is a great resource for women who want to read business advice and keys to success from empowered female business leaders. Some recent topics include marketing your business when you’re busy, the gender pay gap, and resources for new managers.