Women and Education: How far have we come?

Updated By Allie Cuno on March 31, 2020

March is Women’s History Month, and although it’s the perfect time to reflect on the contributions of individual women who made their mark in history, my thoughts drift somewhere else ... not just to one woman, but masses of women whom I witnessed as a child. Women who fought the good fight. They were strong and fearless women who stood up for my right to gender equality as well as their own.

Women’s Rights: A Blast from the Past

Click on the news today and you may occasionally see an article, here or there, that addresses some type of gender disparity. During my childhood things were different. The social climate was heated. Women were taking to the streets, burning their bras and shouting out their mantra for equal rights. I admit their forceful personalities scared me, but at the same time I admired them. This was the ‘70s. “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy hit the Billboard Hot 100 charts. The song’s lyrics, “I am woman, hear me roar in numbers too big to ignore ... I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman,” resonated with women everywhere, from the elderly and retired to the young and impressionable, like me. There was true empowerment in those words!

Women Today: How Are We Doing?

Fast forward five decades. How are America’s women faring today? Did all the ruckus actually work? Yes, in some ways ... not as well in others. While it’s true that women have made great strides in the workplace, we haven’t yet leveled the playing field. Women earned just 79 cents for every dollar men made in 2019 (median earnings of all women to all men).1

Women Are Moving Forward in Education

On a more positive note, let’s take a look at education. The male-female ratio for higher education has been steadily moving in favor of females since the 1970s. We’ve come a long way from 1960, when there were 1.5 males for every female undergraduate.2 In fact, in the late 1970s, statistics show that female college students finally caught up with, and then outnumbered, male students for the first time ever. Those numbers have been steadily increasing ever since. Although the data can be broken down by public college versus private, age, enrollee versus graduate, etc., the takeaway is that female domination of higher education is now found across all types of schools.3

Despite the rise in education, unfortunately, women still earn less than men. For example, a woman with a Bachelor’s degree in business is paid an average of $68,000 a year; a man with the same degree earns $95,000. A woman who receives a certificate in police or protective services gets paid a median salary of $31,000. A man with the same credential earns $49,000.4

What’s Up with the Wage Disparity?

According to a Georgetown study entitled, Women Can’t Win: Despite Making Educational Gains and Pursuing High-Wage Majors, Women Still Earn Less than Men, there is a complex set of reasons for this gender wage disparity. However, “at its heart is discrimination in pay for the same sets of qualifications and experience.” Accumulated earnings differentials between men and women often top $1 million by retirement!4

Career Strategies for Moving Ahead

Ladies, if these statements shock you as much as they do me, then take back what control you do have. Below are six strategies, as outlined in the Georgetown study, to help women move further ahead in their career:

  1. Get one more degree in order to have the same earnings as a man.
  2. Pick majors that pay well, as major choice largely determines earnings.
  3. If you major in liberal arts, get a graduate degree to attain middle class earnings.
  4. Negotiate your first paycheck well, as it will impact your lifetime earnings.
  5. Be careful with postsecondary vocational certificates because they have limited labor market value for women.
  6. If you don’t pursue a degree, consider getting an industry-based certification.

I know what you’re thinking, and I agree. It isn’t fair that a woman has to earn a Master’s degree in order to match the earnings of a man with a Bachelor’s degree. If it makes you want to “roar” and take to the streets like a blast from the ‘70s past, call me. I may join you. In the meantime, give the above strategies some serious thought and be strategic in your educational decisions.

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Allie Cuno is a special interest writer at Center for Excellence in Higher Education (CEHE).

  1. https://www.payscale.com/data/gender-pay-gap
  2. https://www.nber.org/digest/jan07/w12139.html
  3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ccap/2012/02/16/the-male-female-ratio-in-college/#11ca94cafa52
  4. https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/genderwagegap/