How Women Can Thrive in Business School | Education

Key takeaways:

  • Build a network of support during and after the program.
  • Actively participate in class discussions and extracurricular activities.
  • Maintain a healthy balance between school and personal life.

Business school may seem like a male-dominated field, but more women are entering and thriving MBA programs.

Record of women at 58 leading full-time MBA programs in the U.S., Europe and Canada, rose to a record 42% in fall 2023, a jump from 41% in 2022, 38% in 2018 and 34% in 2013, according to the nonprofit Forte Foundation . aimed at increasing opportunities for female business leaders.

“Women who get accepted to top business schools are usually successful, and that can put a lot of pressure on them when they enroll in an MBA program,” says Alice van Harten, founding partner of Menlo Coaching, a consulting firm where she advises MBA candidates.

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

Triada Cross, who is pursuing a dual MBA and Master’s degree in Tourism, Hospitality and Event Management at George Washington University School of Business in Washington, DC, says female MBA students have great potential for success, “but entering a historically male-dominated field can be daunting.”

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

Here are a few more ways women can plan for B-school success.

Choose the right business school

Whether you’re looking to change 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, take a look at business schools that have active recruiters from companies you’re interested in, on-campus events and active school alumni, suggests Elissa Sangster, CEO of the Forté Foundation. Students should also look to see if the school aligns with what they want in terms of location, clubs, culture and other factors, he says.

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

Be active in class

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

“Women can be successful in business school by actively participating in discussions in and out of the classroom, asking questions and contributing their opinions,” says Shaifali Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, an MBA admissions consultancy.

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

Being active in class also means making an effort to talk to professors, including scheduling meetings and chatting during office hours.

“Connect with teachers and mentors and don’t hesitate to ask for advice,” says Senay Agca, director of diversity at GWU’s business school and professor of finance.

Having a close relationship with a professor or mentor can be beneficial after graduating from business school, experts say.

Take leadership roles

By June 2023, women held 10.4% of Fortune 500 executive positions, according to Fortune magazine. Meanwhile, 8% of S&P 500 CEOs are women, and 45% of those women hold an MBA or equivalent degree, Forte reported in 2023.

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

says Aggarwal leadership roles in student organizations may include serving as 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 participate in leadership development programs or workshops sponsored by their business school or outside organizations, Aggarwal says.

“These programs often provide training in areas such as team building, communication and strategic planning—a solid foundation for success in business school,” he says.

Build your network

Students can build their network by engaging with fellow students and alumni through student organizations, study groups and networking events, Aggarwal says.

“Women in business school can make connections with people who can offer support, encouragement and valuable insights as they navigate business school,” she says, adding that female MBA students should seek access to mentorship, career guidance and networking opportunities.

“Many women,” says van Harten, “start to think about how they can combine a successful career with a family at this point in their lives, so it can be valuable to learn from other female leaders how they have combined a demanding career with children.”

Sangster says it’s important to build your network in business school. “These are the relationships that will help you get the first place job after MBA and other roles throughout your career. Find female leaders you might want to model for your own career path.”

Balance school and life

In business school, it is important to find the right balance between school and life outside of school.

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

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

“Be resilient,” says Agca. Have a growth mindset, be less risk averse, believe in yourself, enjoy school life.”

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

“Challenge yourself to maintain a balance between social life and studies, as business school is often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, diverse group of people.”