When colleges first began to go co-ed about the time of the Civil War, higher education was still very much a man’s game. It wasn’t until 1980, nearly 100 years after the start, that women and men began to attend college at similar rates. Soon enough, women began to outpace men in terms of attending college and earning degrees. As of 2015, 72.5 percent of women who recently graduated high school were enrolled in college, compared to 65.8 percent of men of the same demographic. Furthermore, women who are enrolled in two-year or four-year institutions tend to be more successful in their academic and extracurricular endeavors.

It is now apparent that American women have unprecedented access to a college education that was never afforded to women of past generations. However, despite this access, women are still woefully underrepresented in academia and beyond. This infuriating fact raises the question of why women continue to fall behind in leadership roles while they earn more degrees.

Historically, attending college was largely reserved for typically economically privileged young men looking to pursue careers in the fields of ministry, medicine or law. As women were usually excluded from such careers, a college education wasnt practical. As the workforce began to diversify, so too did college educations. Furthermore, women began to enter the workforce in then-unparalleled numbers as American society underwent the rapid transformation of social norms that began during World War II. From this point forward, women began to work outside of the home at much more regular rates. Eventually, a college degree became essential to be competitive in the workforce. This reliance on college degrees coincided with the onset of second-wave feminism. Also referred to as the “women’s movement,” this uprising of feminist ideals focused largely on gender equality for women in work and education. Shortly thereafter, women began to attend college in rapidly increasing rates, eventually rising to the rates they are today.

It is wildly apparent that women today are more able to attend college than ever before. Female college students now are more likely to have higher grade point averages than male students, both when they begin and when they finish their higher education. Women in college also tend to schedule themselves more aggressively in terms of extracurriculars, spend more time studying and participate in school-related activities. However, unlike their male counterparts, female college graduates are not as likely to encounter striking success in their careers of choice. For example, despite similar levels of education, the gender wage gap persists, with women earning between 70 and 90 percent of what men do on average in their respective fields.

The dearth of female leadership in business and politics extends deep into other spheres. While women are much more likely to be teachers in primary and high school settings, this trend does not continue into higher education. In American universities, slightly more than a quarter of full professors were women in 2013. In terms of leadership positions, women fall behind even more so. Women are extremely underrepresented among senior faculty in many universities. A lack of female academics holding positions as college deans or university provosts contributes to the fact that just over 25 percent of university presidents were women in 2012. This statistic is undoubtedly not representative of college student body populations as a whole. In colleges and universities nationwide, women represent nearly 60 percent of students. Even in higher education, where women are continually making gains in terms of attendance and academic success, they still remain woefully underrepresented in the leadership of their own universities.

In many cases, elite universities are among the worst offenders. The University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, which often boasts its status as among the world’s most ancient of institutions of higher education, did not appoint a female vice-chancellor until 2016. The University of Pennsylvania became the first Ivy League institution to appoint a female president in 1994. The University of Michigan did not have a female president until Mary Sue Coleman assumed the role in 2002 — 185 years after the University was founded.

Aside from leadership roles in universities, female professors and other educators still fall behind male colleagues in terms of respect within their positions. This is most evident in an examination of the academic positions women hold within colleges and universities. As of 2015, women held nearly half of all tenure-track positions within universities, but only accounted for 38.4 percent of actual tenure positions. Similarly, women working in academia are more likely to hold lower-ranked positions. Female academics represent more than half of assistant professors and 44.9 percent of associate professors, yet also account for just 32.4 percent of full professors. Of instructor positions, which are typically among the lowest ranking in academia, women account for 57 percent. Furthermore, at all faculty levels from instructor to tenured professor, male academics out-earn their female peers. In the 2016-2017 school year, male full professors earned an average salary of $104,493, compared to $98,524 for women at the same level.

The reasons for these disparities are clearly not because women are less intellectually capable than men, or any less hardworking. Yet, these disparities persist nonetheless and permeate into fields outside of academia. Women are continually underrepresented in a multitude of professional leadership positions. Just 4.8 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women, a number that has fallen from 2017’s all-time high of 6.4 percent. In the political realm, just 23 current U.S. senators (soon to be 24) are women. Despite this low number, this is still a record high for women in the Senate. In the U.S. House of Representatives, just 19.3 percent are women, though the percentage is expected to grow after the midterm elections. Historically, there have only been 39 female governors in the U.S. As a demographic, women, who comprise 50.8 percent of the U.S. population and who are more highly educated than they have ever been, are still represented by governing bodies that are overwhelmingly male-dominated.

In the 21st century, women are undoubtedly experiencing fewer obstacles in the educational field than ever before. However, what are the tangible effects of this increase in higher education? Women as a whole have proven they are capable of success beyond college, yet few women are ever able to obtain such success. Women still lag behind men in terms of pay, political representation and leadership in business and education. Women now attend college more often than men do, yet they are less likely to be taught by female full professors or be led by female university presidents. This reality, though, is one that may be rapidly changing. In the 2018 midterm elections, a surge of female candidates launched campaigns and are changing the political landscape. Women continue to attend college at unprecedented rates, earning a record number of degrees. No matter how many women enter office after the midterms, or how many female university presidents are appointed in the near future, women deserve a much louder voice in the conversation than what is currently being afforded to them.  

Alanna Berger can be reached at balanna@umich.edu.

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