To Address Gender Equity in the Workforce, We Must Look to Higher Education

College-level practices can either hinder, or help, barriers to gender diversity and equality.

Too often, our conversation about gender equity fails to consider the ways in which college-level practices can end up reinforcing gaps and inequalities that persist well into women’s working lives. To boost gender equity in workforce representation and compensation, we need a deeper understanding of the ways colleges create and reproduce barriers to equal labor market opportunities.

Historically, women have been underrepresented in education and the workforce for a majority of the last century. However, current trends indicate that trend is shifting.

Women enroll in college, graduate and pursue advanced degrees at higher rates than men. For example, between 2002 and 2012, college enrollment grew from 16.6 million to over 20 million. Much of this growth is attributed to an increasing number of women enrolling in college. The ratio of college graduates that are women versus those that are men is 3 to 2. And when considering women ages 25-34, studies find that women are over 20 percent more likely to complete a college degree and 48 percent more likely to have completed graduate school than men.

Do these numbers tell the entire story of gender equality? Probably not. Labor market outcomes post-graduation reveal interesting differences between men and women and even suggest that large gender gaps still exist.

For example, women are less likely than men to participate in the workforce, earn less than men for similar work, and are less represented as legislators, senior officials, and managers than men, according to the World Economic Forum. Women are also under-represented in the most high status (and therefore high paying) positions like STEM.

If women are achieving better outcomes in education than they had historically, why do they still seem to fall behind in the labor market after graduation? Researchers claim many factors influence differences between men and women in the workforce, though there seems to be disagreement about which factors are the largest contributors to the gender gap in career and economic outcomes.

According to some researchers, gender segregation in majors is a large contributor to the gender gap in the workforce. Take a look at programs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), for example. While the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that STEM jobs will grow significantly in the coming years, women are less likely to major in fields such as technology and engineering. They also face a great deal of adversity while enrolled in majors in these fields, and many change majors or drop out. As a result, STEM degrees are largely not conferred to women and it is unlikely that women will represent a majority of STEM professionals in the workforce.

These differences in major and career choice are pronounced and often drive differences in economic outcomes for men and women later in life. It may be important for us to provide extra guidance and support for women choosing and remaining in STEM and other high-income fields. My colleague Erin Knepler wrote last month about some of the ways in which the current administration has proposed supporting women and other social groups that may not have equitable access to STEM education.

Research also suggests that women tend to choose more flexible jobs that pay less and stay in the workforce less time over their careers, often leaving to start or support a family. These factors are also cited as contributors to the gender inequity in workforce representation and compensation. However, there is a lot we still don't know.

Given the role higher education plays in the larger framework of the country’s economic prosperity, it is and will remain crucial for us to examine and research the ways institutional practices can impact gaps in workforce and wage equality—not only for women but for all students who have been traditionally underrepresented and underserved.


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