Gender Equity Efforts Fuel Full-Time MBA Demographic Shift

When classes start next week, the women who make up 41 percent of the incoming Full-time Berkeley MBA Class of 2017 will join last year’s record-breaking class, bringing the total number of women in the program to a new high.

The full-time MBA program is now just under 43 percent female—which puts it at or near the highest among elite schools and represents a significant shift for a student body that was less than one-third female just two years ago.

School and student leaders say the shift both reflects and builds on their push for gender equity.

“We’re thrilled that our Haas culture and climate is a place where women see themselves, and we’re happy to welcome this new class of talented young women to our school,” says Jo Mackness, senior assistant dean and chief strategy & operating officer.  “We can’t wait to see what kind of leaders they’ll become over their two years with us.”

Mackness was at a meeting of 47 B-schools at the White House earlier this month, sharing the work Haas has been doing to increase the number of female MBA students and help them to succeed. At the meeting, which topped a year of work, the schools committed to a slate of best practices to close the B-school gender gap and cultivate leaders who can manage increasingly diverse workplaces.

Student-led Haas Gender Equity Initiative

Incoming students bond over tug-of-war at the orientation week Cohort Olympics.

At Haas, students have become a driving force in changing the composition of the school. Two years ago, after the proportion of incoming women in the full-time program dropped to 29 percent, a group of female and male students in the Class of 2015 embarked on an enhanced outreach campaign to new admits, working with admissions to boost the number of women in the class behind them.

“…We thought there would be no better place to lead change than the most progressive university in the country, at a business school that was founded by a woman over 110 years ago,” said Katie Benintende, MBA 15, at the time.

Their efforts, which have grown into the Haas Gender Equity Initiative (GEI), contributed to a 50 percent year-over-year leap in the female composition of the class: 43 percent of the students who began the full-time program last fall were women.

This year, women also make up 43 percent of overall full-time student body—which includes 16 students (11 women) who are completing the final term of their joint MBA/MPH program or have returned from a leave.

FTMBA Class of 2017 students during a Week Zero coffee break

Rachel Park, who began the MBA/MPH program last fall and has become one of the leaders of the GEI, noticed subtle differences in her classes with fewer women.

“I chose Haas because the program so crisply articulated my personal values of diversity and inclusion, and I’ve met so many students here who embody our defining principles,” she says. “Yet in my elective courses last spring that had fewer women, I noticed that I was more aware of how often I was speaking in class. Having a second class with a higher proportion of women will definitely impact classroom culture.”

Student and school leaders have set their sights on deeper institutional change. Under the guidance of Adj. Asst. Professor Kellie McElhaney—who has long been a driver gender equity efforts at Haas—the student group has zeroed in on aspects of student culture, academic culture, and admissions that can be changed to better serve and support women.

Most of the changes require longer-term effort, but students also found some low-hanging fruit: after noticing that many of the traditional MBA fundraisers—such as No-Shave November—were male-centric, they asked the design club to give the events a makeover. They piloted Lean-In Circles and engaged “manbassadors” to encourage more men to attend Women in Leadership club programming, and they incorporated some of their insights—such as encouraging clubs to bring in more female speakers—into orientation materials for the Class of 2017.

“We’re developing leaders who are empathetic and inclusive, and who can create the space to allow diverse perspectives to flourish,” says Stephanie Fujii, assistant dean for the FTMBA Program and Admissions. “What’s been really powerful for me is to see how raising awareness around gender dynamics has led to changed behaviors, in particular our students’ willingness and courage to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations.”

Jake Qian, MBA 16, a self-described “manbassador” who is co-leading the GEIs academic culture team, says it’s important that male MBA students don’t see gender equity as a “women’s issue.”

“I come from retail, where I’ve had many great women as leaders and mentors. In meeting other students at Haas, I realized that my experience was not representative of many industries, and there are actually a lot of systematic issues that prevent women from reaching their potential,” he says. “We can’t create systematic change unless men are involved.”

Laura Counts