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Women in Business School: Insights from the 2022 Application Trends Survey

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Last month, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) released the 2022 edition of the Application Trends Survey. A total of 950 programs from 264 international business schools submitted application data to the report, resulting in an overview of GME applications in 33 countries.

This year’s results depict a challenging environment for business programs. Overall, business school applications decreased by 3.4 percent year-on-year. At the same time, the results show that international applications are returning to pre-pandemic levels, a sign that global student mobility is returning to ‘normal.’ 

Among these broad insights into overall GME applications, however, the survey also highlighted significant changes in business school applications from women. For example, the survey showed which GME programs are successfully increasing the numbers of female applicants and the regions where female applications are growing.

These survey results are significant for two main reasons. Firstly, they represent an opportunity for GME institutions to better understand women in GME, including their preferred programs and where they would like to study. This data will make it easier for business school recruitment departments to make decisions relating to campaigns focused on increasing the numbers of women at business school.

Secondly, the results are an insight into the progression of gender parity at business school. While some regions lag behind in female application numbers, other regions and programs demonstrate a growing demand for GME in a demographic that has traditionally been held back from graduate business education.

1. Full-time one-year European MBA programs are growing in popularity

This year’s survey shows that the MBA remains the most popular program type for prospective business school students. However, while applications to MBA degrees are down globally by 6.5 percent, applications among women have risen, particularly in Europe. 

Almost half of European business courses reported declining applications, including from international applicants. In fact, total applications declined 5.1 percent year-on-year. Full-time one-year MBA programs have not, on the whole, seen an influx of applications compared to last year. By contrast, the overall number of programs reporting growth (46 percent) has remained at similar levels to 2021 (47 percent).

However, the data shows a rising number of women are applying to one-year full-time MBA programs. In fact, 7 in 10 of these programs in Europe grew applications from women in 2022. Just 32 percent of responding one-year full-time MBA programs in Europe saw lower numbers of applications from women. Additionally, the ratio of female applications to these programs was up in 2022, at 37 percent, compared to 35 percent in 2021.

An increase in applications from women cannot just be down to overall levels of growth across full-time one-year MBA programs. On the contrary, a growing number of European programs report stable overall application levels (8 percent in 2022 compared to 4 percent in 2021). Instead, it shows that more young women consider an MBA their ticket to successful business careers.

Claire Hadjikou, academic compliance officer at GBSB Business School, has seen this trend first-hand. “Its interesting to note that this season more students seem to be opting into the general MBA, rather than specializing in one particular area,” she notes.

“The MBA with Entrepreneurship program also continues to gain popularity which certainly speaks to a desire to innovate and lead,” Claire adds.

Stephanie Kluth is the director of admissions programs at ESMT Berlin and has also noted the increased gender diversity among applicants. Applications from women to the full-time MBA at ESMT Berlin have moderately increased this year.

“Our full-time MBA starts in January, and our current class is composed of 48 percent women and 52 percent men, so we are tantalizingly close to achieving gender parity,” she says. “We are about to close the recruitment cycle for our next MBA class, for which we expect a high enrollment of female candidates again.”

2. Europe and Asia Pacific business schools saw increased applications from women

While full-time one-year MBA programs at business schools saw particular growth in applications from women in 2022, this same trend can be seen across overall applications for European GME programs. Over half (58 percent) of GME programs in Europe reported growing or maintaining the number of applications from women at the same time as overall applications in the region decreased.

The same is true for the Asia Pacific region, where 57 percent of business schools either grew or maintained women’s representation in applicant pools. This growth is more significant when considering that, over the past five years, the proportion of GME programs reporting application growth has been unstable. In 2021, 73 percent of programs reported stable or growing application numbers, compared to just 54 percent this year.

Overall, women accounted for 45 percent of total applications in Europe, the highest of any global region. The figure in Asia Pacific was 42 percent, higher than in other regions, including India and Australia.

The reason Europe seems to be winning over competitive regions like the US when it comes to GME could, in part, be down to culture, says Claire.

“Its important to note that access to education is a lot more within reach in Europe in terms of costs, flexibility, blended programs, multi-campuses, and government initiatives that promote gender equality in education,” she explains. “With GBSB Global, like many European learning institutions, the school has traditionally maintained a 50:50 gender ratio for several years now.”

3. In the US, Flexible MBA programs are winning

The survey results paint a challenging picture of GME in the United States. While most business schools in the US (54 percent) saw an increase in international applications, overall, application numbers were down 2.2 percent compared to 2021. Among MBA programs, the story is the same, with most full-time two-year, part-time, and online MBA programs reporting a decline in overall applications. 

However, this overall decline does not apply to female applicants. In fact, a significant proportion of GME programs in the US reported growing or stable numbers of applications from women (47 percent).

The data also highlights that Flexible MBA programs in the US are seeing the highest proportion of prospective female MBA students. Women accounted for 44 percent of applicants to flexible MBAs, the highest proportion for any program type. Additionally, 36 percent of flexible MBAs reported growth in applications from women, a higher proportion than for other flexible program types like the online MBA.

We know that women are more likely to want flexible working opportunities in their careers. This data highlights that this also applies to women who wish to return to study. Whether flexibility is needed to help support their family or because of a financial inability to give up their current full-time role, it’s clear that Flexible MBAs are becoming particularly important for women.

While this trend is particularly noticeable in the US, European business schools have also reported increased applications to flexible programs. One of these programs is the Flexible Executive MBA at Trinity Business School, which currently has a cohort comprised of 50 percent male and 50 percent female students.

“By its nature, the Flexible MBA allows participants to decide when and where they engage, knowing that they are receiving the same high-quality Trinity MBA as students studying on campus,” says Eoghan O’Sullivan, who works in Trinity’s admissions team.

4. US Master of Data Analytics programs significantly improve female applicant numbers

While globally, MBA programs experienced a challenging year, the same can’t be said for business master’s programs. Globally, specialized master’s programs saw a 3.2 percent growth in applications year-on-year, with almost half of all programs reporting application growth.

In the US, most programs saw significant growth, with at least half of responding programs for each course saying applications had increased, except the Master of Accounting, where just 34 percent of programs reported increased applications.

The data on business master’s programs is also positive when considering women in GME. Most programs reported growth or stability in applications from women, but female representation was substantially higher for Master of Marketing (65 percent) and Master of Information Technology (59 percent) programs.

With 51 percent of programs reporting growth in female applications, the Master of Data Analytics is one of the most popular US business master’s programs among women. This is a significant increase from the previous Application Trends Survey when just 39 percent of programs reported increased applications from women.

Among all global business master’s, the average percentage of applications from women per program stands at 46 percent, more than for MBA programs (38 percent) and approximately level with last year’s data. However, two business master’s programs in the US, achieved an average of more than half of applications from women, the Master of Accounting (52 percent) and the Master of Marketing (64 percent). 

Key takeaways for business education

The Application Trends Survey 2022 depicts a promising landscape for GME, with international applications bouncing back and business master’s programs reporting significant growth.

The survey also demonstrates how efforts to improve the gender gap in GME are working, with more women being represented in application pools for programs such as the Master of Data Analytics and Master of Information Technology. This increase should improve the number of women enrolled in these programs.

In particular, the data highlights a demand from women for flexible, shorter GME programs. In Europe, full-time one-year programs are seeing increased interest, while flexible MBA programs in the US are seeing gains.

Similarly, many women are applying to specialized business master’s programs in the US, perhaps because of the high cost of MBA programs. Cost may also explain why there are a lower proportion of female applications to MBA programs this year compared to 2021 (38 percent compared to 44 percent), as well as the decline in MBA applications overall.

This sentiment is shared by Chris Healy, head of MBA Marketing and recruitment at Alliance Manchester Business School. “The cost of MBAs is extremely high in the US, and the strength of the US dollar globally at the moment means a continued rise in cost,” he explains.

“Therefore, some women will look at the top MBAs in the UK and Europe and see more value and opportunity to secure a return on their investment sooner.”

As for the growth in female GME applications more generally, this could reflect the greater efforts being made by institutions to encourage female talent to business school. According to Stephanie Kluth, the current economic climate could be another factor contributing to increased numbers of women applying to business schools.

“Management education programs act as accelerators to better job opportunities as well as senior leadership roles,” she notes. “In addition, interesting incentives for female applicants are rising, which is often a decisive factor.”

While achieving true gender parity at business schools will undoubtedly require more significant efforts from educational institutions and other organizations, the data unearthed by this year’s Application Trends Survey demonstrates that progress is being made. These insights into what women are increasingly looking for in GME offer schools a blueprint for successfully attracting more women to business school and supporting them in their GME journey.