Women are historically underrepresented in C-suite roles throughout the corporate world: Just 25% of total C-suite positions are held by females, who are also underrepresented in jobs that directly feed into C-suite roles, according to thought leadership blog Cooley PubCo.

Business schools can play a large role in improving those odds and in helping companies diversify and strengthen by introducing more women into the C-suite.

Statistics show that as more women enter leadership roles, the benefits for their places of work increase. When businesses put more women in leadership roles, they see a staggering 42% increase in sales, a 53% higher return on equity and a 66% higher return on invested capital, according to the Forté Foundation, a nonprofit committed to increasing female representation in leadership through “business education, professional development and a community of successful women.”

At SMU Cox School of Business, women are an integral part of the business community. Over the past several years, female enrollment at the Cox School has grown 15%, on par with the national average. In 2005, zero business schools in the U.S. reported female enrollments of 40% or greater, according to Forté. In 2019, 19 business schools in the U.S. boasted more than 40%. Cox has now joined those ranks, with a record 40% female enrollment in the two-year Full-Time MBA class of 2022, 57% female enrollment in the current Cox MBA Direct program and 36% female enrollment across all Cox MBA programs.

The Power of MBAs

Women currently hold just 6% of CEO roles among S&P 500 companies — a total of 31 women, compared to 469 men, according to global online business trend publisher Visual Capitalist. Almost half of those women hold MBAs.

The key to increasing female leadership in the C-suite begins with a simple mandate: Increase the number of women attending business school. And once they’re there, broaden their networks.

Julia Hosch, Cox Full-Time MBA Candidate Class of ’21 and president of Cox’s Women in Business club, says that the financial power women can bring to the C-suite has been long understood, “but to have women in the rooms where decisions are made, women need the networks to get in the door. An MBA can be that ticket, especially at a school like Cox that has the network to not just find the door but open it.”

Business schools have long lagged behind other types of graduate schools, such as medical and law, in enrolling women.

When Anne Cadigan Dunlap, Cox’s director of Working Professional MBA Career Programs, received her MBA at The Wharton School, she was the only one of her female peers at the time to attend business school; most of the women she knew from undergrad went to law school. “[Business school] gave me the connections and the skillsets to pivot multiple times in my career,” Cadigan Dunlap says.

The way she sees it, increasing the number of women earning MBAs is vital to business success, especially as MBAs increasingly become a requirement for leadership roles.

“As is the case with all diversity, adding another perspective to the team broadens the range and scope of the team’s ultimate performance,” Cadigan Dunlap says. “I believe the growth of the MBA degree programs across the marketplace has increased opportunities for women to move into leadership roles earlier in their careers.”

Empowering Women at Cox

The Women in Business club aims to prepare women for leadership and provide professional development. Women at Cox are represented in many areas, from the faculty roster and the classroom seats to the case studies students hear and the speakers they listen to.

Within the Cox School, Women in Business excels as one of the largest, most active groups among graduate students. Its members gain community as well as access to guest speakers, mentorship and continued professional and leadership development.

“We offer programming tailored to issues that female students are facing, certainly, but we hope that all our members can use our programming to recognize and advocate for others, even in situations that they might not personally experience for themselves,” says Hosch.

“Women represent such an important voice in our communities, businesses and boardrooms, representing different consumer groups and different needs,” says Jillian Melton, director of admissions, Working Professional MBA Programs. “It is absolutely essential that they are in equal numbers to men in business school. At the Cox School, it’s very important to us that women’s voices are strong and taken into consideration with everything we do.”

Through SMU Cox’s partnership with the Forté Foundation, female business students are given professional development guidance and entree to workshops and networking opportunities that can help jump-start their job searches with access to Fortune 500 companies.

As a sponsoring partner school, SMU Cox gives multiple substantial scholarships to female business students — Forté Fellows — each year. This fall, Cox awarded scholarships to 35 new fellows. The only Forté partner school in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, SMU Cox has awarded more than 150 of these scholarships in the past five years alone.

At Cox, opportunity is the key to the future. By empowering more women to pursue MBA degrees, the School is enabling them to reach new business heights — and C-suite roles.

“We’re putting lots of women MBAs into the Dallas-Fort Worth market and throughout the world,” Melton says, “and they are leading in the next generation.”

Learn more about SMU Cox’s graduate programs.