Femme-BAs: How Olin Business School Wins with Women

The only way to succeed in creating a diverse, inclusive culture is to make it a key priority, starting at the top, including setting clear, measurable goals and communicating a plan to achieve them.

Catherine Dunkin, Olin Business School

A search for “MBA rankings” on Google reveals some 177 million results. Traditionally, the methodology for such rankings has included a combination of the following metrics: acceptance rates, tuition figures, graduate salaries, faculty publications, recruiter surveys, and employment data. While these metrics are important, they fail to address a critical contemporary question: can an MBA program call itself cutting edge—or even keeping pace with the times—if it boasts warped demographics that seem pulled from the pages of a previous century?

Some new metrics are now being introduced into the ranking of MBA programs: diversity and inclusivity. And while no one scores perfectly in those aspects, a few schools stand out far above the rest. According to a 2018 Financial Times report, Washington University’s Olin Business School is fourth in the world when it comes to gender inclusion, putting it several spots ahead of the traditional rankings’ top picks like Wharton, Kellogg, and Booth.

Olin Business School: A Culture of Support

At Olin, 42 percent of the 2019 MBA student body is female, a quarter of the faculty is female, and female graduates earn roughly what male graduates earn.

While these findings already put it near the top of the list, Olin still doesn’t think it’s quite good enough—and they’re not finished improving yet. Six of their last seven hires for the academic year were women. Dean Mark Taylor’s stated mission is to get the student body to 50 percent female.

All this is fitting for a program that calls itself inspired by numbers, driven by principle. Because while numbers are one way to measure diversity, they don’t tell the whole story. A principled approach avoids tokenization by offering support programs that instill a campus-wide culture of inclusion.

The Olin Women in Business (OWIB) Group


“We have a large, active list of campus organizations for various groups,” says Catherine Dunkin, a lecturer in business communications at Olin. “I’m most familiar with our Olin Women in Business (OWIB) group because I have served as faculty advisor for several years. The group involves nearly all of the MBA students (female and male), and it’s led by a really energetic first- and second-year group of officers.”

OWIB takes on several initiatives in the area of gender equality, including raising substantial sums of money for scholarships for qualified female students, coordinating with the Men as Allies group on campus to provide broader support for women in the student body, and arranging professional development events with senior women leaders as speakers and coaches. They take on outreach in recruitment efforts, too, by sending emails, writing letters, making phone calls, and hosting events that ensure Olin maintains, and improves, the strong percentage of women it counts amongst its student body.

“The only way to succeed in creating a diverse, inclusive culture is to make it a key priority, starting at the top, including setting clear, measurable goals and communicating a plan to achieve them,” Dunkin says. “Then, it’s constant focus and attention, plus hard work to recruit the right people; create a supportive, inclusive culture, and celebrate the success when you do things right.”

The faculty and administration at Olin do their part, too. The school partners with Forté Foundation, a nonprofit community of women committed to transforming leadership in every field that business touches. Women enrolled in Olin’s MBA program are automatically made members of the Forte Foundation, giving them access to fellowships and leadership conferences while they’re in school, as well as networking and leadership training as they join the workforce. So far, Forte has awarded over $142 million worth of fellowships to MBA students. At their conferences, they address gender inclusion not just in business schools, but all business leadership, asking students how they can impact the world at large.

Why Are Diversity and Inclusion So Important?

“Bringing together a group of diverse students—and faculty and staff, too—into an inclusive environment encourages openness, understanding, and acceptance,” Dunkin says. “At Olin, we absolutely need a good mix of all types of people so we can produce leaders who respect others, listen to and incorporate different points of view in decision-making, and succeed in business, where commitment to inclusion can be a major differentiator in creating unique success.”

The prioritization of inclusion has a compelling business case that’s baked into the fundamentals of economics: by widening the field of competition, one can maximize one’s resources. And contemporary studies supports this: in the business world, it’s generally believed that greater diversity leads to higher profits. And, according to Harvard Business Review (whose affiliated business school ranks below Olin on the subject), gender diversity also leads to greater productivity. Olin’s policies, therefore, don’t just benefit a particular demographic subset of the school, but rather all students in the program and their eventual employers. Those benefits ripple outward, into the business world, in a generative way.

“In my PR agency and corporate positions, my employers went out of their way to be sure they shared all possible opportunities,” Dunkin says. “When I started and grew my own entrepreneurial firm, I found supportive bankers, mentors, clients, and employees. At Standing Partnership, we didn’t market our services based on being a woman-owned firm; we found acceptance and success because of the quality of our consulting work, excellent client service, and steadfast commitment to clear core values. I hoped I could share my experiences of the open and welcoming industry environment I experienced with all MBA students at Olin when I joined the faculty.”

Gender inclusion is, in the end, one metric in a larger equation. But even by the traditional methods of ranking MBA schools, Olin is in a rapid ascent. Between 2017 and 2018, Financial Times pushed Olin up 18 spots to 50th in the world and up five spots to 23rd in the nation.

Poets & Quants lists Olin as the third best MBA program in the United States. The numbers are good, and getting better—and part of the reason for that is Olin’s underlying principles. The school is committed to providing a program that is experiential, entrepreneurial, and global with ambitions to be, in Dean Mark Taylor’s words, the most international program in the world. Most of all, it’s evolving into a school that is more forward-thinking and inclusive than its competitors. That gives it a fundamental edge and the benefit, ultimately, is passed on to the students.

“I see [Olin’s] MBA students experience a supportive community of smart, creative, accomplished faculty and staff who both challenge and encourage students to learn, grow and create successful futures,” Dunkin says. “The students come from around the world with impressive experience already in their careers. Olin gives them one or more missing pieces to move to the next step, whatever that may be. The students find a lot of room and so many exciting paths before them when they come here. It’s an invigorating, creative experience.”

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about how new and aspiring business school students can best plan their education and careers. In the Two Views series, he conducts detailed interviews with recent business school alumni, with a particular focus on the choice between in-person, online, and hybrid learning models. His Femme-BA series highlights business schools that not only excel academically but also take unique and robust steps to support a diverse and inclusive learning environment for women.

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