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In a small classroom on the MIT Sloan School of Management campus in Cambridge, Mass., about 15 graduate business school students gather for a workshop on job interviews. The lesson is like any other for a group of job seekers—stay calm, tell a clear story—but the attendees look nothing like what you might expect. They all are women.Business schools have traditionally been white and male. Even today, women represent only about 30 percent of M.B.A. enrollment. Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians make up fewer than 10 percent of the students in the top 30 business schools, while they comprise about 28 percent of the U.S. population.But business schools are working hard to make their classrooms reflect the real world—the world employers recognize, too. Companies “are trying to build the most diverse workforce,” says Elissa Ellis-Sangster, executive director of the Forté Foundation, an organization that promotes women’s leadership in business. Schools have followed suit, reaching out to potential students who may never have before considered an M.B.A.For most schools, the problem of gender and racial imbalance presents itself early in the application process. Simply put, women and underrepresented minorities do not apply to business programs as often as their counterparts do. If randomly drawn from the applicants, a first-year class would remain disproportionately white, Asian, and male. As a result, diversity and parity efforts rely heavily on outreach.In 2001, the Forté Foundation—a collaboration of major corporations, top business schools, and the Graduate Management Admission Council—was formed to address the lack of progress toward gender equity in business schools. Law and medical schools were quickly approaching parity, but business programs remained disproportionately male. Admissions officers were losing smart women not to competitor schools but to other disciplines.Since then, Forté and its member schools have talked to thousands of women to explain the value of the M.B.A. “We market not just the schools,” says Julie Strong, an admissions officer at MIT Sloan. “We market the M.B.A. as a whole.” Forté holds conferences in big cities to answer questions about financing, work-life balance, career opportunities, and the commitment necessary to earn an M.B.A. And, as with that job interview workshop held by MIT Sloan Women in Management, or SWIM, Forté events offer women a safe space to raise concerns that might not come up in a mixed-gender setting.Youth movement. Women also have benefited from a decade-old admissions trend at business schools: increasingly younger students. During the ’90s, the age of business school students crept up until enrollees averaged about seven years of work experience. It was beginning to seem like the older, the better. But about 10 years ago, graduate programs began to reverse course, in part because of the effect an aging student population was having on diversity recruitment. By seeking out potential students just two or three years out of college, graduate programs could recruit more women when they were receptive to the message of a significant life change. “If you wait five to seven years, women are more concerned about uprooting their lives,” Ellis-Sangster says. “The earlier you get them, the fewer strings attached.”Tackling the dearth of certain minority groups may seem similar to the battle to reach gender parity, but the challenges are vastly different. For example, black women are relatively well represented in business schools, says Barbara Thomas, president and CEO of the National Black MBA Association. But, much like in the rest of academia, it is black men who are left behind.Part of the solution is to recruit young. The National Black MBA Association has begun outreach efforts in high school and specifically seeks out C students who might otherwise be overlooked. If she had her way, Thomas would start even younger. High school is “really not early enough,” she says. “After the age of 9, if you have not gotten into the mind of the child, you probably have lost them.”
The National Society of Hispanic MBAs and American Indian Business Leaders also offer resources and opportunities for their members. There is also the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, a corporate and academic alliance dedicated to advancing underrepresented minorities in business. As part of its effort to attract more black, Hispanic, and American Indian students to the field, the consortium provides a common application for potential students, hosts a special orientation program for first-year student members, and gives access to scholarships—rare commodities in the business-school world.Meanwhile, individual schools have taken matters into their own hands, banding together to recruit from historically black colleges or hosting elaborate “diversity day” events to welcome new or potential students.Lastly, there are two selling points that speak clearly to both women and minorities: money and flexibility. In general, women and minorities are far more concerned about the cost and convenience of a graduate degree, and business schools have responded. This isn’t to say that school is getting cheaper (it’s not) or that there are more grants and affordable loans out there (most students will still rely heavily on standard loans). But schools have found that recruiting women and minorities means being prepared to answer more questions about tuition, housing, loans, and repayment. In addition, many programs have expanded their part-time and online offerings and don’t hesitate to advertise their commitment to supporting their students.Despite the challenges, the efforts of these schools have not gone unrewarded. Last year, first-year enrollment at New York University’s Stern School of Business was 41 percent female, and MIT has seen its class go from 28 percent female in 2000 to 35 percent just eight years later. The number of local chapters of the National Black MBA Association grew more than 50 percent in five years, and, according to Thomas, the late 1990s were a time of “drastic changes” in the social fabric of business schools: “You could feel it. You could see it. It was all around everywhere.” Now, in the wake of a historic presidential election, another round of “drastic changes” doesn’t sound so improbable.
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