Tatiana Bailey: Educational attainment of women and the wage gap

By: Tatiana Bailey

December 17, 2017

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Since 1982, women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men in the United States, and by 1987, women have also earned more master’s degrees. In the 2017 graduating class, there were 140 females per 100 males earning master’s degrees and 109 females for every 100 males earning doctoral degrees.

It is striking that despite these changes, a wage gap still exists with women earning about 80 cents for every dollar earned by a male. One could argue that perhaps it is simply taking a long time for the wage gap to close. Economists say that wages are “sticky,” and even the recovery from the Great Recession has shown that wages can take a painfully long time to begin to improve, often years behind many other economic indicators.

The sticky wage explanation is not likely what is going on, however, with trailing female pay. Wage gains were steady until the 1990s but have stalled since the early 2000s. By the early 2000s, the 1982 female graduates should have been in their peak working years.

As women continue to outpace men in educational attainment, if anything, women’s pay should be accelerating more quickly. Likewise, women should also have at least equal representation in the C-suite. Yet, according to research by nonprofit LeanIn.org and management consultant McKinsey & Co., women hold only 17 percent of the highest positions. At this rate, the study says it will take 100 years to achieve gender equality in the workplace.

Over the years, many have suggested that childbearing and childrearing keep many women from those top roles. Yet, the LeanIn/McKinsey survey of 30,000 workers nationwide shows that fathers are now just as likely to state trepidation about career advancement during childrearing years.

What women say is that there are “other” workplace barriers often holding them back. These barriers include cultural norms and predispositions around perceptions of gender. These norms are sticky because they are so entrenched. They are slow to change because they are not just institutional but are ingrained in individual thinking. This means they impact how we raise our children, the roles we assume in the home and the translation of those roles into the workplace.

Predisposed ideas not only impact gender, they can also impact race, ethnicity and religion. This is likely why some groups have received (sometimes extreme) unequal treatment. But one group that has consistently been deemed unequal throughout most of human history and across continents is women. This is perhaps why, even in developed countries, the achievement of full equality has been arduous and elusive.

Recent disclosures of inappropriate behavior by men toward women in the workplace show how imbalanced the workplace can still be, as well as how entrenched those predisposed cultural beliefs about gender truly are.

The national media have not covered stories of women who are repeatedly patronized by men in the workplace even when they are equals in education or experience, or increasingly, even more educated or experienced.

Some of the best mentors and champions of women in education and in the workplace can be men. It is not fair to make assumptions and overly generalize. What we can do is note that women have been over-represented in higher education for the past 25 years, and they have achieved equality in ability and work ethic.

The next leap involves the shift of cultural paradigms ingrained in most of us. Perhaps the recent revelations in the media can be viewed as an opportunity not just to expose, but to acknowledge and leap forward. Women in the U.S. have capitalized in spades on their ability to educate themselves – an opportunity not available in every corner of the world. Fully integrating women into all fields, all boardrooms and all earning opportunities will only further propel the U.S. as a the global economic power of the U.S. That’s American enterprise and competitiveness at its best.

Tatiana Bailey is director of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Economic Forum.