Despite higher college attendance, women still struggle with workplace challenges

Posted October 15, 2019

More women than men attend colleges and universities across the United States, but two UW-River Falls professors say that despite the educational advantage females continue to struggle with discrimination in the workplace.

About 63% of the 2018-2019 UW-River Falls student body was female, according to the Office of Institutional Research. This gender imbalance, which has been evident for years, has roots in many areas.

The federal law, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, is one. More women began participating in higher education because schools could no longer receive federal funding if they discriminated based on gender.

“That was supposed to ensure equal access and no gender discrimination in institutions of higher learning,” said Cyndi Kernahan, professor of psychology and assistant dean for teaching and learning in the College of Arts and Sciences. “That led to more fairness and less discrimination. Well, eventually. It took a while.”

Economics also play a major role in the gender imbalance on college campuses, Kernahan said. The United States is experiencing what economists call wage stagnation.

“What that means, if you look at the 1950s or 1960s, especially for white Americans, it was relatively easy for a white man to get a job and support a whole family, so women didn’t necessarily need to work,” said Kernahan.

Now women often go to school to be able to provide more income for their future families, since one income is no longer enough. According to the Washington-based Pew Research Center, “Today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power it did in 1978, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then.”

Societal norms also have changed. In the 1970s, people began getting married a little later. This delaying of marriage allowed women to better pursue their undergraduate degrees. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), “The age of female college graduates’ first marriage increased by about 2.5 years in the 1970s. Whereas from the 1950s to the early 1970s women had tended to marry a little more than a year after graduation (from high school), by 1981 the median age of marriage for college-educated women was 25.”

As far as men not pursuing a college degree as much as women, Kernahan said the primary reason that often gets cited is also related to economics.

“While men don’t make as much as they used to, they still make more than women. This is true across races. Definitely white men earn the most. Across races, men in every group out-earn women with less education. Women need more education to be able to match their peers,” said Kernahan.

“We’re seeing shifts, but it’s far from equal,” added Melanie Ayres, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of the women and gender studies program at UWRF.

According to a 2006 study by NBER, schools are set up better for girls to learn from a young age: “The slower social development and more serious behavioral problems of boys remained and allowed girls to leapfrog over boys in the race to college.”

Ayres said it is largely a myth that men and women learn significantly differently.

“If you look at long-term trends, I don’t think it’s troubling,” she said. “It’s nuanced because girls and women still face a lot of barriers in education, especially in certain fields.”

Ayres continued, “I’m more concerned with the ongoing discrimination that girls and women face. I don’t want to downplay the struggles of men in school, but is important to look at long-term trends and see that, though it’s not the case in all males, but typically men do better in the work field regardless of struggles.”

According to the Pew Research Center, as of this year women now make up more than half of the college-educated workforce. Though there are still concerns with wage gaps, women continue to pursue a college degree.