MBA? Why many women say no.

It's one of those conundrums. Slightly under half of the students in medical school are women. Ditto for law school. But in the hunt for an MBA, women remain a definite minority - about a third at the top schools.

In some places, female enrollments have actually fallen.

Why aren't women knocking down the doors to graduate business schools? The answer involves a negative perception of the business world, education experts say. And it's depriving women of an important tool to enhance their careers.

"In business overall, I probably have to admit, there isn't a clear path for women to advance and therefore the appeal of entry to women isn't as straight as say, law or medicine," says Dan Bauer, founder of the MBA Exchange, a Chicago admissions consulting firm. "That's sort of unfortunately ingrained in the culture of many businesses.... And I advise our clients that it creates a tremendous opportunity."

For many women, a master of business degree apparently doesn't look very promising. From 2000 to 2002, female enrollments at the top 20 MBA programs actually fell by 35 percent, as did enrollments overall, according to Business Week magazine. And since 1992, women's share of MBA enrollments at those schools has barely risen - roughly three percentage points. That's half or less the rise that law and medical schools saw in the same period.

"I think women look at the business world and think, "Do I feel like this is a place I want to be?" says Marie Wilson, director of the Ms. Foundation for Women, a New York-based advocacy group for women and girls.

The apparent answer is: no. According to a 2000 study by Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization, and the University of Michigan, women graduates cited as barriers: a lack of female role models, incompatibility of careers in business with work/life balance, lack of confidence in math skills, and a lack of encouragement by employers.

"There are bigger hurdles [women] have to get over," says Elissa Ellis, assistant dean of the MBA program at the University of Texas business school. "A lot of men think, 'I'm going to get an MBA.' Maybe it doesn't come as an option as easily for women. They need to think about what kinds of things they can do with an MBA."

As a result, business schools and other organizations have created outreach programs to attract more women. "One of the things that I think business schools need to do a better job of is to grow the pipeline of qualified women," says Britt Dewey, director of admissions for Harvard Business School.

At Harvard, for example, the admissions office works to highlight education for women as business leaders, Ms. Dewey adds. Yet, not all business schools make such an effort. While 35 percent of schools reported targeted outreach efforts for women in full-time programs last year, a nearly equal percentage - 29 percent - made no outreach efforts at all, according to the GMAC Application Trends Survey.

Women's organizations are also becoming increasingly important in the effort to dispel MBA myths.

"There are numerous aspects preventing women from entering into an MBA program," says Jeanne Wilt, president of the Forté Foundation, a consortium of seven top companies, 13 business schools in the United States and Britain, and two nonprofit organizations. "Among them is the idea that an MBA does not fit into the type of lifestyle they wish to pursue. These are exactly the types of perception that the forum seeks to get rid of." In September, the foundation sponsored a series of forums urging women to examine the opportunities of an MBA. The eight-city series attracted some 1,000 women.

"That was just an absolutely incredible event," says Beth Fly, a Northwestern University admissions director who attended the Atlanta forum in 2002. "It was incredibly inspiring. I, myself, left pretty pumped after the event."

Like the Forté Forums, MBA Exchange links up women with past clients to offer insight into the schools they're considering. This insight often helps clients decide which schools might work best for them, says Mr. Bauer. The figures for the entering class of 2006 are not available yet, but Ms. Wilt remains optimistic more women will enter business programs.

"You need mentoring and role modeling," she says. "Listen to a woman who's been successful, and listen to her talk about [her experiences]. It really has nothing to do with gender. It has to do with being a great businessperson."

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