How Women Can Thrive in Business School

Business school may look like a male-dominated specialization, but more women are entering and thriving in MBA programs.

Enrollment of women in 58 premier full-time MBA programs in the U.S., Europe and Canada increased in fall 2023 to a record 42%, a jump from 41% in 2022, 38% in 2018 and 34% in 2013, according to Forte Foundation, a nonprofit focused on increasing opportunities for women business leaders.

“Women who gain admission to the top business schools are typically high achievers, and this can put a lot of pressure on them when they enroll in an MBA program,” says Alice van Harten, a founding partner of admission consulting firm Menlo Coaching, where she advises MBA candidates.

She advises women to set clear goals before starting an MBA program and to “think about how they want to spend their time and effort and to get comfortable with imperfection.”

Triada Cross, who is pursuing a dual MBA and master of science degree in tourism, hospitality and event management at the George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C., says women MBA students have great potential for success, “but entering a historically-male dominated field can feel daunting.”

Cross, a U.S. Army veteran with a bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York, says she’s found that it’s important to cultivate a community around you in B-school.

“Find your tribe of supporters and cheerleaders who will keep you motivated when the assignments, projects and finals get hard,” says Cross, who also serves as the executive vice president of GWU’s Black MBA Association.

Here are several other ways women can plan to be successful in B-school.

[READ: Questions Women Should Ask When Applying to MBA Programs]

Choose the Right Business School

Whether you seek to switch careers or advance in your current field, it’s important to do your research and choose the right program and school, experts say.

To find the right fit, look at business schools that have active recruiters from companies you’re interested in, events on campus and active alumni from the school, suggests Elissa Sangster, CEO of the Forté Foundation. Students should also look at whether the school aligns with what they want in terms of location, clubs, culture and other factors, she says.

“Do they have a strong percentage of female students plus female faculty and top-notch professors in the areas you need to grow?” Sangster says.

Be Active in the Classroom

In class, it’s important to raise your hand, speak with authority and participate actively, experts say.

“Women can be successful in business school by actively engaging in discussions both inside and outside the classroom, asking questions and contributing their perspectives,” says Shaifali Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, an MBA admissions consulting company.

Actively participating can enhance learning and help demonstrate confidence and expertise, she says.

Sangster says it’s important to authoritatively speak up in class and to remember that “a way to engage the entire class is to share an idea others can build on.”

[Typical MBA Courses That Applicants Should Know About]

Being active in class also means making an effort to talk with professors, including scheduling to meet to chat during office hours.

“Connect with faculty and mentors and feel comfortable to ask for guidance,” says Senay Agca, chief diversity officer at the GWU’s business school and a finance professor.

Having a close relationship with a professor or mentor may be advantageous after you graduate from business school, experts say.

Take on Leadership Roles

By June 2023, women held 10.4% of leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies, per Fortune magazine. Meanwhile, 8% of S&P 500 CEOs are women and 45% of those women have an MBA or equivalent degree, Forte reported in 2023.

Taking on leadership roles early can help women lay the foundation for these types of roles during their careers, experts say.

Aggarwal says leadership roles in student organizations can include serving as a club president, committee chair or event organizer. “These experiences provide opportunities to practice leadership skills, such as decision-making, delegation and conflict resolution.”

Students should also get involved in leadership development programs or workshops sponsored by their business school or external organizations, Aggarwal says.

“These programs often provide training in areas such as team-building, communication and strategic planning — a strong foundation for succeeding in business school,” she says.

Build Your Network

Students can build their network by engaging with other classmates and alumni via student organizations, study groups and networking events, Aggarwal says.

“Women in business school can forge connections with people who can offer support, encouragement and valuable insights into navigating the business school experience,” she says, adding that female MBA students should seek access to mentorship, career advice and networking opportunities. “Many women,” van Harten says, “start thinking at this point in their lives about how they can combine a successful career with having a family, and for this it can be valuable to learn from other female leaders how they’ve combined a demanding career with having children.”

Sangster says it’s critical to build your network while in business school. “These are the relationships that will help you land your first post-MBA job and other roles throughout your career. Seek out women leaders that you might want to model for your own career path.”

Balance School and Life

While in business school, it’s important to find a good balance between school and outside life.

“Women should prioritize activities and commitments that bring them joy, fulfillment and balance outside of their academic and professional responsibilities,” Aggarwal says.

She says students should remember that “their well-being is paramount to their long-term success and happiness” personally, academically and professionally.

“Be resilient,” Agca says. “Reflect on failures but move on with lessons learned. Have a growth mindset, be less risk averse, believe in yourself, enjoy the school life.”

And along the way, don’t forget to have fun and make friends, Cross says.

“Challenge yourself to balance socializing and studying because business school is often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet a diverse group of people.”

More from U.S. News

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What It Takes to Get Accepted at a Top MBA Program

What an Executive MBA Is and How It Compares to a Full-Time MBA

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