Women have gained a lot of ground in education in recent decades. Data from the Department of Education on college degrees by gender found that in the U.S., the college degree gap shifted to favor women in 1978, when for the first time, more women than men earned associate’s degrees. In 1982, women earned more bachelor’s degrees, and 1987 saw more women earn the majority of master’s degrees. In 2006, women earned more PhDs than men.
Despite these shifts, a new report from Concordia University St. Paul that analyzed data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) reveals that women aren’t pursuing master’s degrees in business administration (MBAs) as much as men, even though the U.S. Department of Education data indicates that the MBA is the most popular graduate degree, with over 188,000 students earning one during the academic year 2012-2013, the most recently measured year. During that same time, liberal arts and humanities was the most popular, with 344,000 students earning that undergraduate degree.
In 2015, the GMAC counted 60% of graduate degrees and 57% of bachelor’s degrees conferred to women. However, women only earned 36% of MBAs, and that number has stayed flat for the past five years.
A large part of the decision to pursue an MBA depends on how well a program fits a woman’s educational, professional, and personal goals, according to Concordia’s analysis. A study from DDI, a global leadership consultancy, found that it’s not always necessary to have an MBA to step into a leadership role. In fact, humanities graduates–of which there are more women–did better than MBAs in a number of areas essential to performing as a leader.
Women who don’t wish to pursue a traditional MBA program often opt for degree areas that offer transferrable skills as evidenced by the number of degree holders in marketing (65%), accounting (61%), and management (52%). More women are applying to online MBA programs and a variety of other flexible offerings as well.
There are several other factors contributing to the gender gap among MBAs, not the least of which is money. The analysis revealed that getting business school funding is a top challenge for 30% of women, but for only 9% of men.
Tuition for an MBA can cost as much as six figures, even at public universities. But employers are increasingly demanding graduate degrees for positions that used to only require a bachelor’s. And while DDI’s study found that companies are compensating those who complete their MBA at a top college about 36% more than a candidate with a bachelor’s degree, Concordia’s research shows that even with an MBA, women could earn an average of 80¢ for every dollar a man makes.
There are ways to get more women into MBA programs and fast track their salary growth, and that starts with changing the way new students are recruited, according to a 2015 global survey of graduate management programs. Once in the workforce, mentoring programs and diversity task forces can increase female and minority representation in management over five years.