(WOMENSENEWS)--A private party at Dylan's Candy Bar in New York's Times Square. An all-expenses-paid weekend of chatting, wining and dining. Group cooking classes.
These are some of the lures U.S. graduate business schools are casting to potential female applicants.
As women reach parity with men in law and medical schools, their enrollment rates at business schools remain stubbornly low. The Graduate Management Admissions Council, which administers the GMAT entrance exam, said 39 percent of its test-takers in December were women. That's an improvement of two percentage points since 2002.
The reasons aren't surprising. At a recent recruitment event in New York for prospective female MBAs, members of an alumnae panel said they faced the same challenges in business school that they later faced in the corporate world: outsider status, difficulties balancing career goals and family and pressure to prove themselves.
Women are enrolling in medical and law schools in much greater numbers: 47 percent of law school students are women and they now make up 49 percent of medical school students.
The near-parity in those professional schools doesn't mean that women have it easier after graduation. In the legal profession, for example, women frequently face similar challenges to their counterparts in business, particularly when it comes to career advancement (just 15 percent of law partners and corporate boards of directors are women).
Business School Perceptions Differ
Deborah Rhode, the director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University, says the gender disparity in business school may have as much to do with perceptions about career direction after graduation as about any school's recruitment policy
"Medicine is viewed as a helping profession and one in which women have played a major role throughout history--although as nurses," said Rhode. Law has "historically been aligned with social movements and was supportive of women's equal rights and so is viewed as a woman-friendly career."
Women clearly view business school as a more challenging and less welcoming atmosphere, however.
"Business school is reflective of what happens in business now," said Vera Allain, a graduate of Emory in Atlanta, who was a panelist at the MBA recruitment event in New York. The power dynamic, for example, develops early.
"In classes, men took over the conversation at times," added another panelist, Jill Yellock, who got her MBA at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
A 2001 study by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and New York-based Catalyst, a nonprofit that advocates for women's leadership in the workplace--and sponsored by several large corporations--looked at why women weren't applying to business school in greater numbers.
The top reasons: a lack of female role models; a perception that business jobs are incompatible with family responsibilities; a tendency to be intimidated by quantitative requirements; and a lack of encouragement by their employers (42 percent of women felt an absence of encouragement, while 25 percent of men did so).
Math Anxiety a Factor
Rhode, the Stanford law professor, also thinks math anxiety could play a role. "There is some phobia among women who do well in school but in some cases are anxious about their quantitative capacities."
Those who do persevere overwhelmingly report that the challenge was worth it.
More than 80 percent of the female business school grads surveyed in the report said they found that an MBA contributed to their career advancement; black women, especially, reported a boost to their careers.
Yellock, now a bank examiner at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, used her stint in business school to rise to that position from her previous work selling software technology for IBM of Armonk, N.Y., and Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems (recently acquired by Oracle).
Business schools teach the theory and practice of running any organization--nonprofit, private or governmental--efficiently and effectively, says the Forte Foundation, which was established soon after the release of the Catalyst-University of Michigan report and organized the New York recruitment event.
Sponsored by 37 of the country's business schools and several large corporations, such as Fidelity and Ernst and Young, Forte offers programs that support women through the business school application process and provides networking opportunities in all sectors for women seeking career advancement.
Networking Opportunities a Plus
The Forte Foundation stresses to prospective MBA students that business school affords networking opportunities with professors, many of whom have contacts outside of academia, as well as classmates who will go on to bigger things. This is a key advantage, especially for women, who often suffer from a lack of a network in the corporate world. And although time commitments, particularly in the first year, can be overwhelming, female business school students say this can be instructive for learning how to budget time and prioritize.
Some business schools are seeing measurable benefit from their efforts to recruit more women, often through networking groups for female students run by alumnae and by supporting organizations like Forte. Business schools almost uniformly say they want more female students.
The University of Indiana's Kelley School of Business, which offers the cooking classes and hosted the candy party, saw its female enrollment increase 8 percentage points between 2008 and 2009--but it started at a low 26 percent.
New York University's Stern School of Business, which has the highest proportion of female students, is at 40 percent.
Heidi Brown spent 11 years as a writer for Forbes where she covered, among other topics, issues that affect professional women.