The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where women have made up 40 percent of the school’s MBA classes for the past five years. Wharton is among a handful of schools with that high a share of women; women are underrepresented in most MBA programs. The University of Maryland aims to change that. (Photo by Rusty Kennedy/Associated Press.)

This story has been updated.

The share of women at top MBA programs was close to zero in the 1970s. The number spiked to nearly 30 percent within the following decade, and it’s been stuck there ever since. Barely a handful of programs hit the 40 percent mark – Harvard in the fall of 2014, Wharton for the past five years.

No one seems to know why women are so underrepresented at the nation’s top master’s in business administration programs, nor what to do about it. But a growing chorus of concern in recent years about the low share of women in top business and corporate leadership positions — in the single digits –- and the yawning pay gap between male and female executives has drawn more attention to the issue.

The University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business could be a new focal point for the issue, because leaders there are set to pledge loudly and publicly that they’re going to figure it out. On March 5, at the school’s annual Women Leading Women Symposium, the school plans to formally commit to boosting the share of women MBA graduates to 50 percent by the year 2020, the 100-year anniversary of women getting the right to vote.

“Many business schools talk about their commitment to women. Now it is time to deliver results,” Dean Alex Triantis said in a statement.

At Maryland, women make up about 32 percent of current MBA students, a percentage that hasn’t budged much in years, said Daryl James, spokesperson for the Smith school. Women made up 31 percent of MBA students at U-Md. in 2013.


The percentage of women MBAs at the top business schools from 1999 to 2014. (Data compiled by Max Symonds/ MBA50.com .)

Why push for change at Maryland now? Because people at the top think it’s important.

“We’re in a time where a mass of people are excited about these things, more so than in the past,” said Joyce Russell, vice dean of the business school and a leader of the Women’s Initiative Board spearheading the effort. “You really need that. You can’t make any change unless it starts from the top.”

Big supporters of the new initiative — dubbed 50/50 by 2020 — include Triantis and a new partnership with the Forte Foundation, a consortium of corporations, business schools and nonprofits that provide scholarships to empower women in the workplace.

Provost Mary Ann Rankin is another supporter who also has started a number of campus-wide efforts to recruit and retain women faculty members and move them into leadership positions. Because it’s not just that there are few women in MBA programs, or in corporate leadership. There are few women academics in MBA programs.

“The percentage of women business school deans is very low, around 20 percent,” Russell said. “And the women faculty who could potentially become deans is also low. Those percentages are in the 30s.”

So Russell and the backers of the initiative say one thing they hope to do is to start early to target not just women undergraduates, but high school and middle school girls. “We’ve got to find out what it is that would get girls excited about business,” Russell said.

While the share of women in the United States taking the GMAT entrance test for MBA programs has been stuck at about 38 percent, women make up the majority of test takers in China (64 percent) and Russia (57 percent), reports Matt Symonds, chief editor of MBA50.com, a website that tracks the top MBA programs around the world.

Symonds notes two powerful deterrents to getting more women into MBA programs are the high cost coupled with what research shows is a lower earning potential. Women MBAs often make less than their male counterparts from the very beginning. And a 2009 study of MBA graduates from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business by the National Bureau of Economics Research found that a woman’s career slows down and their pay takes a hit when they become mothers.

Indeed, “opt out” studies of women graduates have found that 15 years after graduating with MBA degrees, nearly 30 percent of the women who became mothers have left the profession. The same is not true of male MBA graduates who became fathers, or of women without children. The opt out rate was highest for MBA graduates, these studies found. One in four female lawyers with children opted out after 15 years, while only a handful of medical doctors did – due, the researchers surmised, to their greater ability to control their schedules and work hours.

The punishing work hours and demanding work cultures of many businesses are a big part of what keeps women from taking on leadership roles, Russell said. And, in a difficult Catch-22, those work environments might not change, she said, until more women are in positions of power.

“For decades now, when women go into workplaces, they have to accommodate to the workplace that exists, one that’s built around the organization man. If more women were at those higher levels, they’d understand that the workplace can accommodate the people coming in,” Russell said.

“We need change. But I don’t think we’re going to get it until the people making the decisions understand the issues. And it’s hard to understand them if you’ve never experienced them,” she added. “If you have mostly men making decisions who’ve had spouses at home taking care of everything else, they don’t have quite the same understanding as men or women who work and take care of everything else themselves.”

Changing work culture is only one reason behind the push to have more diversity in the MBA program and in leadership positions in businesses, Russell said. Research done by Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advocacy group dedicated to the advancement of women in business, has found that businesses with more diversity at the top are actually more profitable. And some companies are beginning to recognize the value of having a leadership team that is more reflective of their clients and customers.