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Female enrolment in full-time MBA programs rose to 37.8 per cent this year among the 52 business school members of the Forté Foundation.ferrantraite/iStockphoto

Women are a growing presence at top MBA programs globally, aided by scholarships, mentoring and other support, although most business schools remain well short of gender parity, according to a new survey released this week.

Female enrolment in full-time MBA programs rose to 37.8 per cent this year (up fractionally from 2017) among the business school members of the Forté Foundation, a Texas-based non-profit organization that works with industry, education institutions and others to encourage women to pursue leadership positions in business.

In a survey of its 52 business school members – mostly in the United States but also from Canada and Europe – 19 schools reported they had cracked the all-important marker of 40-per-cent female enrolment, up from only three schools in 2014.

“The good news is that we are seeing more schools above 40 per cent, more schools above 35 per cent, and fewer schools below 30 per cent,” says Elissa Sangster, chief executive officer of Forté, which has been tracking gender trends at business schools for 15 years.

The University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business led the field this year with women representing 52 per cent of its MBA program.

Ms. Sangster credits the gradual progress globally to a collective effort by recruiters, faculty, alumni and others to send a welcoming message to qualified candidates.

“We have moved to a phase where it almost takes a village to recruit a good class that has gender balance,” she says, adding: "It takes an all hands on deck approach to coming up with unique ways to engage all of those constituent groups [faculty, recruitment, alumni] with the admissions process.”

Member schools in her organization are required to provide substantial scholarships – at least two recipients qualify for US$20,000 in each year of a two-year program – while Forté provides intensive coaching and networking sessions for prospective MBA candidates, and also promotes on-campus “men as allies” MBA chapters.

This year, York University’s Schulich School of Business was the only one of four Forté schools from Canada to surpass the 40-per-cent mark, though other Canadian Forté members are only a few percentage points lower. Female participation in Schulich’s full-time MBA program is 42 per cent this year, up from 40 per cent last year, according to the school.

“We are seeing consistent growth,” says Melissa Judd, assistant dean of students at Schulich. She cites several factors, including stepped-up social media and other marketing, in-person recruitment at global MBA fairs, and reliance on alumni networks to reach top male and female candidates.

This year, the school also tripled (to 27) the number of Forté fellows who receive financial aid and, with it, access to the foundation’s coaching and networking events in Canada and the United States.

“We were really intentional as we were awarding scholarships and bursaries to look at our strong female candidates and how we could leverage our Forté partnership to support them,” says Ms. Judd.

Scholarships are a key recruitment tool to reach top female candidates, says Ms. Sangster. “Financial burden, or concerns about that, is one of the top issues for women pursuing an MBA,” she says.

She cites scholarships and bursaries for undergraduate women as one strategy to “build a pipeline” of future candidates for graduate programs.

Last month, for example, Fidelity Investments Canada announced $40,000 over five years for top female finance students at the University of Guelph’s College of Business and Economics, part of an overall donation of $215,000 to support “gender equity and active learning.”

The scholarships – four were handed out this year – are aimed at top female candidates entering the college’s economics and finance program as well as those enrolled in specific finance-related courses. The female-focused awards are a first for the university and Fidelity, a major investment-management firm in Canada.

For Fidelity, the new scholarships (along with $100,000 for a finance-focused student investment club) are a tool for early talent spotting.

“From a career perspective, when women are in business they gravitate toward accounting because they see other women in accounting,” says Diana Godfrey, senior vice-president of human resources for Fidelity. “What we want to do is increase our profile in these [undergraduate business] programs to say [to students], ‘You have other options.’”

She says her company will evaluate the impact of the female-eligible scholarships in attracting top candidates into finance-oriented programs and, ultimately, into the financial services sector.

Guelph business school dean Julia Christensen Hughes says the new scholarships “break new ground” in addressing the low proportion of female students in some finance programs. For example, women account for 148 students in the college’s economics/finance major, compared to 573 men.

Her college’s relationship with Fidelity, adds Ms. Christensen Hughes, is “a fabulous example of corporate-university collaboration.”

Forte’s Ms. Sangster also gives high marks to the Fidelity scholarships. “It’s a brilliant way to tackle this [under-representation] problem,” she says.

Forté has set a target for its business school members to hit the 40-per-cent mark for female MBA enrollment by 2020, but Ms. Sangster has no firm date for business schools to enroll men and women in equal numbers.

For all Forté members to hit the 40-per-cent target in two years would mark a big breakthrough, she says.

“I feel 40 per cent gets you to a place where your community on campus has the culture, diversity and inclusiveness [traits],” she says. “A lot of the bells are ringing even if every one [of them] is not 100 per cent.”

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