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The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and York University’s Schulich School of Business reported a record 40.8 per cent and 40 per cent respectively for females in their full-time MBA classes this year.The Globe and Mail

For the first time, top business schools in North America are hitting the 40-per-cent mark (or better) for female participation in long male-dominated Master of Business Administration programs.

A new survey by the Texas-based Forté Foundation, a non-profit consortium that supports women pursuing education and careers in business, reports that 17 of its 51 member schools enrolled 40 per cent or more women this year, compared with only two institutions that hit the mark five years ago.

On average, Forté member schools reported a steady rise in female numbers to 37.4 per cent of full-time MBA programs this year, compared with 33.4 per cent in 2013.

Two Forté-affiliated schools in Canada – the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and York University's Schulich School of Business – notched a record 40.8 per cent and 40 per cent respectively for women in their full-time MBA classes this year. Forté member schools typically offer scholarships between $20,000 and $50,000 each for top candidates.

Does the upward trend reveal a recipe for gender diversity – a goal now explicitly stated by many schools?

"There is not a secret sauce," says Elissa Sangster, executive director of Forté. "What we have noticed is that the schools that are doing a full-court press are the ones that seem to be making the gains and not only making the gains but [doing so] consistently."

In Canada, both Rotman and Shulich show steady growth in female participation over the past five years, with a range of activities and programs to attract a diverse mix of top candidates.

When Jamie Young joined Rotman in 2016 as director of recruitment and admissions for the full-time MBA, he recalls a "buzz in the building" over dean Tiff Macklem's "stretch goal" for an MBA class of 40 per cent women by 2020 (compared with 29 per cent in 2013).

Rotman, which currently has 24 Forté Fellows, reached the 40-per-cent goal ahead of time by collaborating with faculty, students, alumni and industry, says Mr. Young.

His department worked with the school's student-led Women in Management Association on a new "40-in-four" ambassador program (40 per cent in four years) to link current female students with prospective candidates who had not finalized their acceptance of an offer.

"We couldn't do it on our own, and it begins first and foremost with our students," says Mr. Young. "We had a quick conversation with our Women in Management Association president and in a week we had the 40-in-four ambassadors and they connected with every admitted woman to our class."

Then-WIMA president and Forté Fellow Jessica Glanfield, now a senior manager of strategic and business architecture at the Royal Bank of Canada, jumped at the chance for her members to share their experiences about the school.

The ambassador program, renewed for 2018, allows current students to share information without arm-twisting potential recruits.

"I am not speaking to you to convince you to come to Rotman," Ms. Glanfield says she told potential candidates. "I am speaking to you to help you get the answers to the questions you need to ask to make a good decision about what you want to do."

During her 2016-17 presidency, Ms. Glanfield says she and her association recruited male students as members who would advocate for equity issues. "I do think these allies programs are quite a significant piece of the puzzle," she says.

Like Rotman, Schulich applies a multipronged approach to gender diversity, including the recruitment of female students to serve as ambassadors for the MBA program.

Last year, through its student-led Women in Leadership association, Schulich was the first business school in Canada to organize a gender-equity forum, known as Manbassadors, for male and female students to discuss sensitive topics, such as discrimination and unconscious bias.

Each spring, female-focused clubs and industry partner KPMG play host to a business panel at Schulich to connect current students and female alumni with established careers.

Melissa Judd, Schulich assistant dean, students, says that hitting the 40-per-cent mark "is an important milestone for us and I look forward to increasing it further."

She says her school's relationship with Forté (Schulich has 13 Fellows) has been "an important driver" in attracting top candidates. In addition to financial assistance, Forté Fellows receive coaching and an entrée to an ever-expanding network of female professionals.

In contrast to the MBA, some specialty graduate business degrees are already majority female. For example, women make up 54 per cent of Schulich's Master of Management program, which requires no prior work experience. Ms. Judd notes that specialty business graduates can return later to complete their MBA, often on an accelerated timetable.

Realigning the male-female ratio has consequences for learning.

Having 40-45 per cent female students in the MBA program, says Forté's Ms. Sangster, "changes the dynamics of the classroom and the business school culture and environment."

At Rotman, for example, having 40 per cent women in a class of 350 students means there are enough women to ensure every student team has a gender mix, says Mr. Young.

Gender parity is still some years off, though Forté expects top schools to reach 50 per cent by 2030. Ms. Sangster, encouraged by recent progress, says "we are seeing a lot of hard work over many years starting to pay off."

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