Names of women feature more and more prominently in some of the hottest global business ventures and influential deals. IBM has appointed its first female CEO, Ginni Rometty, Facebook went through a major IPO led by Sheryl Sandberg, and Google’s top executive Marissa Mayer became Yahoo’s CEO. Forbes’ list of influential women is overflowing and indicates that they are increasingly taking on managerial roles.

Women MBA applicants are on the rise

The cliché that the Masters of Business Administration is male-tailored and male-dominated is becoming obsolete. During the past decade women have braved their way into the business degree and have gradually become men’s equals – both in number and academic excellence. In 2014, the number of female applicants skyrocketed. The trends for 2015 were similar. Data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) showed that 109,892 women sat the GMAT exam in 2015, accounting for some 44% of all tests taken - both record highs. This is the seventh consecutive year in which women took more than 100,000 exams. To get a clear picture of the trends, one must take into account that between 2006 and 2015, the number of women taking the GMAT test increased by 38%.  

The region with the fastest growing number of women taking the GMAT exams is East and Southeast Asia, where they make up a total of 62% of the test-takers. Only in China, 41,655 women sat for the exam in 2015. The US comes in second with 32,465 women, followed by India with 8,312.

In 2015, 60% of the women who sat the test applied for an MBA and sent 135,389 score reports to MBA programmes. However, the largest share of women applicants applied for the Masters in Accounting (57%) programme, followed by Masters in Management (55%), and Masters in Finance (47%).      

So, by and large, things are looking up for women. The positive stats reflect their determination to get into the world of business and stay there, but also a change in the outreach policy at many grad schools.

Women are on the radar of business school recruiters

The significant rise in the number of female MBA applicants in recent years is not driven by some miraculous force, but is the result of the concerted efforts of many top MBA schools to attract more women within their ranks. It is no secret that business schools have a highly targeted approach when it comes to recruiting MBA candidates. Also, they are eager to promote gender equality by securing a more or less equal ratio of male and female applicants. Hence, women have become a special target and many incentives have been created.

Harvard Business School (US), for example, has been experimenting with techniques to support female students. Other schools have professors who lecture on females in the workplace. Babson College (US) runs the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership, which is targeted at female students who wish to run their own businesses. Other organisations aimed at fostering women’s business education and their subsequent careers have also been set up.

The Forté Foundation was created in 2001 as a non-profit consortium of leading companies and top business schools that work together to assist women in successfully completing their education and launching their careers. But does the investment pay off? Are women MBA graduates fulfilling their professional aspirations and have they managed to change the business landscape?

The post-graduate benefits for women MBA graduates

Regardless of whether or not they manage to fulfil their business goals within the short or long term, the vast majority of women MBA graduates are happy with the choice of education they have made. Most of them are convinced that the degree will advance their career thanks to the skills attained, the knowledge acquired, and the networks created.

According to a 2015 GMAC survey, 70% of women report that their business school degree has been financially rewarding. Their median return on investment three years after graduation is 182% compared with 199% for men. The average annual growth rate of their salary is 6.1%. "My Queen's MBA has equipped me with the confidence and skills that will be invaluable as I build my career. I now work in an area that I'm passionate about and have the ability to chart my own course and make a difference", says Kate Dinham, a graduate of Smith School of Business (CAN) and current senior marketing manager at Nestle Purina in Canada.

Basma Anabtawi, a Laurie MBA graduate, who is presently working as a senior demand planning manager at a big cosmetics company, emphasises the importance of networking as one of the biggest advantages of her programme. “The MBA has given me numerous opportunities, most importantly the opportunity to network with successful business men and women from many industries and levels of experience. I graduated knowing these are lifelong friends.”

The jobs and the industries women MBA graduates pursue

Many women MBA graduates make traditional career choices and go into finance, accounting or consulting, but there are also those who use their degree to tread new ground or rise to the top of the corporate hierarchy.

Women have been breaking one glass ceiling after another and the number of female general managers or successful entrepreneurs worldwide has grown dramatically. Forbes magazine (which does a regular feature on the world’s most powerful women) points out that the number of USD10-million-plus women-owned firms increased by 57% last year alone. Also, according to a report by Dow Jones Venture Source, venture-backed companies that include females as senior executives are more likely to succeed than companies with only men in charge.

Part of the secret to their success is that MBA women are making clever choices and are going into industries they know best – consumer goods, health care, retail, nonprofit. (Consulting, energy, investment banking, private equity, and IT are still considered more of a male domain).

Read: Women in B-School: A Blueprint for Change

Though it would be unwise to assume that female consumers would rush out and buy just about anything created by other women, facts point out that cosmetics companies, for example, run by women, are doing exceptionally well. Why? Because women understand other women – they know what service or product the customer desires. And that gives them an edge in developing products that better meet women’s needs. And there are a number of success stories that testify to the above. Other sectors, such as the food and retail industries, have also seen women rise to glory. The US female entrepreneurs Erica Bell and Katie Finnegan developed Hukkster because they missed getting employee discounts after working at J. Crew. Hukkster sends alerts when clothes go on sale. Diana Lovett’s Cisse Cocoa, on the other hand, is a baking and cake-mix start-up that caters to the more socially responsible gender, women. It buys organic cocoa from small-production cocoa growers in the Dominican Republic at a fair price.

And finally, there are those MBA women who choose the creativity boost over the money stimulus and opt for fields like marketing and public relations. One such woman is Renae Placinski. While still attending the MBA programme at Kellstadt Graduate School of Business (US), she briefly considered going into finance, but ultimately decided she enjoyed writing and communications more. In addition, she wanted to work in a field she felt passionate about. After graduating in 2006, she briefly worked in television and then landed her current mid-level public relations position for North Shore. She is pleased to be pursuing a career that is the “right fit” for her interests and is convinced her degree will help her advance in the field. And she is no exception to the rule!