The ‘Grade Gap’ Between Male and Female MBAs

The ‘Grade Gap’ Between Male and Female MBAs

Female MBA students are receiving poorer grades than males because they are not speaking up in classroom discussions, according to new research from Columbia Business School.


Female MBAs show less public assertiveness, especially in technically-oriented classes such as finance. Female students who fared worse in technical classes tended to be those who hedged their assertiveness. Active learning – such as case studies and class discussions – is considered essential for mastering the material in an MBA program.

“Female students far too often hold back and hesitate to ask the kinds of questions that would help them better master technical concepts and procedures, perhaps because it is inconsistent with the established gender norms linking men with technical ability,” said study author Aaron Wallen. “This has a profound effect on their overall achievement in MBA classes.”

Female MBAs put in more effort studying privately than males

According to the study, there is another gender norm contributing to the performance gap: an expectation that female students have prowess in some areas and men in other areas.

Columbia found that more female students fit the ‘poet’ interest profile and more men the ‘quant’ profile. A similar difference appeared when looking at GMAT scores, which are needed for entry into most top MBA programs.The gender performance gap in MBA students exists primarily in technically-oriented classes like accounting and finance, but not in socially-oriented classes like leadership and marketing.

However, the research shows that female students do not internalize the gender norm, which would be reflected in their reduced academic effort. On the contrary: female students put in more private studying effort than male students. The researchers say this suggests that female students may recognize the costs of their reduced assertiveness and compensate somewhat by putting in extra effort in private.

Schools going to great lengths to boost gender diversity

The survey comes as many schools go to great lengths to increase the gender balance of their MBA cohorts through recruitment initiatives and scholarship funds.

At UCLA Anderson School of Management, for example, a women’s club, with the help of ‘manbassadors’, targets female undergraduates with recruitment outreach. The school has also made efforts to increase the share of female professors and deans, said Judy Olian, its dean, who added that diversity in all its forms enriches the learning experience of students. 

This is a response to the long-running low female representation in MBAs. The percentage of MBA degrees awarded to women in the US has been stuck at 35% for the past decade, according to AACSB, which accredits business schools. 

Yet more women now seem to be enrolling in MBAs: a study by advocacy group Forté Foundation found that women’s full-time enrolment in MBA programs at 36 US schools climbed to 36.2% in 2015 – a 3.9 percentage point jump since 2011. 

Women balk at cost of getting an MBA

The biggest problem to further growth in enrolment is that women balk at the cost of attaining an MBA – which can run into well over a hundred thousand dollars at top schools – according to a recent survey of 5,900 applicants by the GMAC, which runs the GMAT entrance test. 

“Women have made phenomenal progress in attaining business master’s degrees, yet they have not yet caught up with men in the share of MBAs earned,” said Sangeet Chowfla, CEO of GMAC. He added that “financial concerns [are] the number one issue cited by female applicants”.

However, the Columbia researchers say that increasing the proportion of the class to 50% female will not solve the problem of assertiveness, without prior measures to fix the pipeline of qualified female candidates. 

“Interventions for assertiveness often focus on women’s confidence or body language,” they wrote. “But this misses the point. ‘Lean in’ interventions that address the roots of the problem would work better than ‘lean on’ interventions that suppress its symptoms.”


They recommend training faculty and students in skills for eliciting and managing the participation of people around them – a skillset that is valuable in any work setting.

Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

See related categories:

0 Comments
Log in from the top right-hand corner or click here to register to post comments