EDITORIAL: Are We Closing the Gender Gap in Business Schools?

2017 Volume 20 Issue 1

In the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, we see the following claim: “Minority students and females are making greater gains to narrow the gender and minority gaps…This is exactly what we like to see: all students improving, with students at the bottom of the distribution making faster gains.”

Figure 1: Male-Female GMAT Total Score Gap Trend

Source Data: GMAC[1]

The trend in Figure 1 appears to support claims that the academic gender gap is closing, like those in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, at least for prospective MBA candidates. This gender gap matters because the pipeline to the top boardrooms, where women are under-represented, begins in business schools where men are over-represented. Top-ranked business schools, like Stanford, report that the average GMAT total scores of their admitted students is north of 720. Other scholars have pointed out the value that society misses when the selection processes begin with GMAT scores that create corporate boards without diversity.[2] [3] [4]

Is the gender gap closing because women’s scores are improving? Or because men’s scores are declining? Or could it be due to some other change in score trends? In any of these cases, could changes to the composition of diverse subgroups, which make up the gender categories, explain away the apparent closing of the gender gap? The last question is worth exploring because issues of equity or intersectionality may lurk within the group averages. Furthermore, interventions to address the gender-gap may require different approaches for sub-groups based on race, national-origin, or geography.

Figure 2 answers the main question of the previous paragraph. The GMAT gender gap for U.S. citizens residing in the United States is not closing. We see a different pattern for international candidates, that is, non-citizen U.S. residents. The average GMAT total score for male international candidates fell from 541 to 521 between testing year 2007 and 2015. This decline explains almost 80 percent of the 10-point reduction in the gender gap portrayed in Figure 1.

Figure 2: Average GMAT Total Score by Gender and Citizenship for United States Residents


For U.S. citizens not much has changed. The average GMAT total score for males grew slowly from 546 to 558 for the years observed in the data. The average GMAT total score for U.S. females increased slightly from 502 to 516, matching the increase for male test-takers, while female international candidates also increased their average scores from 506 to 519. Some scholars argue that the gender gap in academic performance is driven by a stereotype threat—social conditioning that prevents subgroups from attaining their full potential.[5] If one believes these authors, to meet the goal of diversity on the boards of corporations, steps to address the gender gap remain just as necessary in 2017 as they were in 2007.

What has changed is the composition of persons taking the GMAT exam. Non-U.S. citizens represented 18.2 percent of all GMAT exams taken by residents of the United States in testing year 2007. This figure grew to 23.6 percent in testing year 2015. Among females, non-U.S. citizens increased their share of GMAT exams from 7.4 percent of total GMAT exams taken by U.S. residents (17.9 percent of GMAT exams taken by female U.S. residents), to 12.0 percent of total GMAT exams taken by U.S. residents in testing year 2015 (29.0 percent of GMAT exams taken by female U.S. residents). Male test takers represented 58.8 percent of U.S. GMAT exams in testing year 2007, and 58.6 percent in testing year 2015.

Only candidates with top scores generally receive admission to the business schools, which feed the pipeline to top corporate positions. Therefore, one must look beyond averages. From this perspective, there is good news. Females that scored 700 and above (the 89th percentile), gradually increased from 25.5 percent of candidates in the 2007 testing year to 30 percent in 2015. (This increase was largely due to non-citizens). The higher female representation in the share of top performers also mirrors the slight increase in the female share of MBA enrollments in the decade—it is now about 37 percent for the top 50 MBA programs.[6]

In sum, efforts to promote female achievement in business must continue, especially for female U.S. citizens. The pipeline to the boardroom begins at the top tier of business school applications, and for the majority of U.S. GMAT candidates, not much has changed in the last 10 years.


[1] The data in this figure, Figure 2 and the explanations throughout this paper are from an anonymized database of all GMAT tests taken by U.S. residents between July 2006 and June 2015 (GMAC’s testing years 2007-2015). Note: GMAC testing years begin on July 1 and end on June 30. The author is particularly grateful to GMAC for the data.

[2] Matsa, D. A., Miller, A. R., et al. (2013). A female style in corporate leadership? evidence from quotas. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 5 (3), 136–69.

[3] Dezs¨o, C. L., & Ross, D. G. (2012). Does female representation in top management improve firm performance? a panel data investigation. Strategic Management Journal 33 (9), 1072–1089.

[4] Carter, D. A., Simkins, B. J., & Simpson, W. G. (2003). Corporate governance, board diversity, and firm value. Financial review 38 (1), 33–53.

[5] Inzlicht, M., & Schmader, T. (2012). Stereotype threat: Theory, process, and application. Oxford University Press.

[6] Kitroeff, N., 2016. Why b-schools struggle to enroll more women. URL http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-03-17/



About the Author(s)

Michael Olabisi, PhD, has more than six years of corporate experience in consulting and audit. He spent two years with PricewaterhouseCoopers in West Africa, and worked with clients that ranged from financial services to manufacturing as part of KPMG’s Advisory Services in New York and Minneapolis. His professional exposure to international business with clients on three continents motivated his pursuit of an academic career.

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