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The Forté Foundation’s Elissa Ellis Sangster: Q&A

Interview with Elissa Ellis Sangster of the Forté Foundation

Elissa Ellis Sangster of the Forté FoundationLast year, with new records set by Harvard Business School and Wharton for female MBA enrollment, and with HBS dean Nitin Nohria vowing to double the number of case studies featuring female protagonists in five years, forward momentum on b-school gender equity seemed to be very much in evidence. But with the entering class of 2014 that momentum, with few exceptions, appears to have stalled.


To get her take on this, TopMBA.com editor-in-chief Louis Lavelle recently sat down for a conversation with Elissa Ellis Sangster, executive director of the Forté Foundation. The nonprofit consortium of companies and business schools works to educate women on the value of the MBA and increase their access to graduate business education in the hope of closing the gender pay gap and getting more women into c-suite positions. One way it does that is through the Forté Fellows Program, which through partner schools awards US$20,000 fellowships to qualified MBA applicants.

This year the forward momentum many business schools had been making on enrolling women seems to have stalled.  While there were a few schools with substantive improvements (UC Berkley’s Haas School of Business for one) 9 of the 14 schools I checked recently had made no improvement, or enrolled fewer women.  How are you interpreting that?

I think that when I look at it as a trend we’ve been improving, but every few years we have a stagnation period. We’re at 34 to 35% now. I think what we’re seeing is there’s a limited applicant pool and that applicant pool can only produce so many women. The schools at the top are seeing the dramatic increases at the top…I think we’re going to continue to see progress but we’re going to have setbacks.

TopMBA.com recently reported that for the first time ever, women outnumber men as MBA applicants in North America. That’s been the case in Eastern Europe for quite some time and Latin America may very well be next. The conventional wisdom has been that the previously low numbers of female applicants were the result of family concerns – given a choice between b-school and starting a family most women will opt for starting a family. So what’s changed in the last few years that more women are applying?

I haven’t seen the applicant data, but we’ve seen GMAT test-takers. My take on this is that the dramatic rise in non-US citizens [applying to US business schools] is what accounts for the rise in female applicants on the US side. My guess is that the percentage of women is higher for non-US applicants. I do think family is still one reason why many women do not apply to business school, but several other factors impact their decision – things like the financial investment, leaving their full-time job, lack of role models, and no encouragement from their influencers.

Even though more women are applying to business schools, US business schools are stubbornly stuck, for the most part, at about 35% female enrolment. Why aren’t more female applicants making the cut?

I think there are two things: we want to make the MBA more visible to women, but we also want them to present the best application they can. Often women will take the GMAT cold and walk away disheartened, or they’ll write an essay and won’t have anyone look at it. Through the Forte’ Foundation’s MBA Launch program, we work with women to prepare for the GMAT, assess school fit, and prepare their personal story for the applications and interviews.

What can business schools do to fix this problem? Is the answer more female applicants – in the hope that a larger pool of female applicants would contain more qualified applicants who will be admitted – or is the answer somehow leveling the playing field for women in the admissions process?

Obviously more women in the applicant pool is important. Schools are battling over a pool of women and those women are getting many opportunities. The problem is now we don’t have enough women to fill the demand. More women would be better for everybody. But to get women into the top 25 we have to make sure women are presenting the best applications, so that when admissions officers look at these profiles they see someone who is ready to make that MBA decision.

The Forté Foundation has had great success in increasing female enrollment – some of your partner schools have enrolled classes that are 45% women. How does the Forté Foundation do it?

Part of it is capturing the attention of women early in the pipeline – that’s something that an individual school or company doesn’t have the bandwidth to do. Second is really customizing our communication to women–we can really target that messaging and give them the information they need in real time. Keeping them engaged is the critical piece, and making sure you’re talking their language.

How much of the underrepresentation of women in senior executive jobs and corporate boards can be attributed to the underrepresentation of women in MBA programs? How much can be attributed to other reasons, including bias or discrimination in the workplace and choices that women themselves make in their careers?

Clearly the pipeline of women MBAs is a critical part of getting women into the c-suite. In the Fortune 500, over 50% of the female CEOs have MBAs. More women with MBAs keeps women focused on the path that leads into the CEO positions. So we do think it’s important. In terms of career path there’s still a lot to be done there. We have to really help them understand that if they make certain choices–such as to drop out of the workforce–it’s very hard to stay on that path toward the c-suite.

A few years ago Bloomberg Businessweek did a remarkable bit of research that found that the gender pay gap among graduates of top US business schools was widening. In 2002, women earned 98 cents on the male dollar; ten years later it was 93.2 cents. Part of the reason seemed to be that more men and fewer women were pursuing high-paying careers in finance. Is there a way to close the gender pay gap, and make b-school as lucrative for women as it is for men?

Yes, more women need to go into finance [in order to close the gender pay gap]. Having more women in those career paths gets more women into visible roles, and ultimately into the c-suite. That said, there’s a lot of education that needs to be done at the front end…companies need to reconsider some of the requirements they have in place for advancement to the c-suite, such as international experience, and decide if those requirements act as a barrier to women seeking to advance into those positions.

What’s at stake if we don’t fix the problem of female underrepresentation in b-schools?  Why is this an urgent problem?

What’s business going to look like with more women at the helm? It’s going to be better. It really helps put forward not just what’s better for the company but for the employees, customers, the country, and the economy.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.


Written by Louis Lavelle
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