National Women’s History Month: Here’s how education is propelling women forward

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As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it’s important that we continue to celebrate the many remarkable women in our nation throughout the rest of the year. Their great accomplishments and career achievements have often been fulfilled due to their pursuit of further education.

Although women were barred from higher education institutions until the 19th century, it hasn’t held them back from achieving their dreams and advancing in their careers. Here’s how higher education is propelling women forward.

Women enrolling in college continue to break records. In the 2020-21 academic year, females made up nearly 60% of college students, which was an all-time high. In that same year, more women applied to college than men, according to Common Application.

By earning a college degree, women are able to make more in the long run. While we still have a way to go with ensuring equal pay for women, studies show that people who earn bachelor’s degrees make more in their lifetime than those who hold high school diplomas, and they are less likely to be unemployed. During the past two years of the pandemic, women with high school diplomas were more likely than those with at least a bachelor’s degree to leave the workforce.

For single moms (who make up 20% of women’s college attendance), education is making a significant difference in their lives. Single mothers with a college degree earned more than $610,000 over the course of their lifetimes and are 69% less likely to live in poverty than those who don’t hold a degree, according to data from the Institute of Women’s Policy Research.

Women aren’t just outpacing men in enrolling in college, they are also more likely to complete their degree programs. Data from the U.S. Department of Education showed that more women are completing their degrees than their male counterparts. As women continue to earn degrees, it offers many opportunities for them in the job market.

Women are making strides in the workforce. A few years ago, another milestone was achieved, with most college-educated workers in the U.S. being women. With females surpassing men in higher education enrollment, this is likely to continue to increase in the coming years.

However, we can’t ignore the gender pay gap. There are many factors that contribute to this in addition to discrimination. The industry or profession one works in can result in different pay. Women are also more likely to have less experience due to having children and working fewer hours to take care of their children.

One reason for the gender pay gap is men choosing to work in higher-paying fields, such as in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). A Harvard Business Review study found that high-paying roles in tech and engineering are male dominated. Where women-dominated fields, such as social sciences and liberal arts, often offer lower wages.

Yet, the number of women in STEM continues to increase. In 1970, women only held 8% of STEM jobs, but that has increased to 27% in 2019. While women continue to enter this market, educational institutions can play a critical role in encouraging girls and women to pursue careers in these fields.

Additionally, the number of women working in the medical field is increasing. In 2019, for the first time, the majority of medical students were women. The top specialties for females included pediatrics, obstetrics, child and adolescent psychiatry, and neonatal-perinatal medicine.

And, in healthcare, the number of women has almost doubled since 2010. Women make up three-fourths of full-time, year-round health care workers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly half of them have bachelor’s degrees and a quarter of them have advanced degrees.

Women leaders are paving the way for others. Higher education is imperative for women to advance in their careers. Study.eu found that 98% of the world’s most powerful CEOs held at least a bachelor’s degree, with more than half having earned advanced degrees. For women to continue to advance up the career ladder, they often need to have at least a bachelor’s degree, if not a master’s degree.

Currently, 8.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs in the United States are women – an increase from 6.6% in 2019. And, the number of women running businesses on the Fortune 500 hit a record high of 41. Although the growth is slower than many would like to see, it is continuing to rise.

In the higher education sector, nearly one-third of colleges and universities have female presidents and 44% of provosts are women, according to CUPA-HR data.

As women continue to pursue higher education degrees, more opportunities for advancement open up for them. And, when they lead, they bring more women with them. Women-led organizations and higher education institutions show a higher percentage of women in top administrative positions.

While we celebrated Women’s History Month this March, we recognized the many achievements of women who have pursued higher education. Their journeys haven’t been easy, and many have been met with resistance. Although some areas in our nation’s workforce have seen slow strides forward, higher education can be an integral part of their journey moving forward.

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