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MIT Sloan MBA program draws highest female percentage in school history

Published: September 2, 2014

Women seek to make all business sectors more “female friendly”

New Class

New MIT Sloan students at orientation in August

They comprise the highest ever female percentage of an entering MBA class at MIT Sloan, but some of the women now beginning their studies hope to reshape gender lines far beyond their Cambridge campus.

“Many big-name companies in the American food industry, much like those in finance and technology, have been male-dominated,” says Erica Zendell, a 24-year-old native of Franklin Lakes, N.J., who started a nutrition consulting business for individuals with special dietary needs. Zendell hopes to apply her MBA “to make a difference in the global food system.” While that and other sectors may not be the most “female friendly” right now, she says, “someone needs to pave the way because it won’t happen on its own and it won’t happen overnight.”

Zendell is among about 400 incoming MIT Sloan MBA students drawn from across the globe. This year’s MBA class is 40 percent female, up from 33 percent last year, reflecting the school’s effort to attract a more diverse student body.

“Gender as well as overall class diversity was a factor in my choice of an MBA program,” says Averil Spencer, a native of Atlanta who since 2011 lived in India as executive director and co-founder of VOICE 4 Girls, a nonprofit that focuses on educating marginalized adolescent girls. “I wanted to go somewhere where I would be surrounded by classmates from different backgrounds, nationalities, and ages. I am not interested in a traditional MBA, where everyone goes into consulting or I-banking. I want to be challenged by people who see the world differently and go on to amazing and diverse careers.”

Gender balance “was not a factor” in her MBA program search, says Alexandra Howitt, 26, of Belmont, Mass., “but I am absolutely thrilled to know that we are making progress toward equal gender balance in MBA programs, which I hope our children will soon take for granted.” Howitt, who since 2011 has worked in the three-person office of opera soprano Renee Fleming, has “been very impressed by the culture at Sloan generally, which absolutely includes a supportive environment for all its students,” including the partnership between MIT Sloan administrators and the student group Sloan Women in Management.

Like their male counterparts, many women chose MIT Sloan for reasons other than diversity. “My decision factors were the quality of the education, historical performance of graduates, strong recruiting relationships with my target companies, national program ranking, and the culture fit at MIT Sloan,” says Kate Nichols-Smith, a 30-year-old engineer from Walnut Creek, Calif.

Gender was also not a major consideration for Dana Buchbut, a 30-year-old physician from Tel Aviv, Israel who wants to become a health care entrepreneur. “The MBA program at MIT Sloan will enable me to integrate my medical knowledge and experience with the managerial, financial, and organizational expertise to achieve real changes in healthcare,” says Buchbut, whose background includes posts in the Israeli military, leading a mobile clinic designed to provide free medical services to sex workers, and volunteering with Physicians for Human Rights to bring together Israeli and Palestinian health professionals to work in rural Palestinian towns.

“I am not afraid of gender inequality,” says Buchbut. “On the contrary, I am more motivated to reach positions where women are in a minority. Some careers, such as product management, are more appealing to women than others. But females tend to stay away from other sectors, such as investment banking, often because of their busy lifestyles. Avoiding such sectors is often the choice of the women, not the sector.”

Jessica Bixby of Oakland, Calif., who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua prior to coming to MIT Sloan, said the encouragement of female mentors was a factor in choosing MIT Sloan. “Sloan’s efforts for gender parity harbinger a changing paradigm and challenges our generation to make women MBAs and business leaders commonplace, as opposed to exceptions,” she says. “Whether a sector is ‘female friendly’ today should be irrelevant in a decade. I will choose a career that fits my skillset and passions and I hope to have many female counterparts. If that is not the case, it is an important challenge to women—and men—to encourage women to enter that space.”