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Why our brightest female graduates are still at a disadvantage

By Debora Spar,

When the American Association of University Women released a study in October finding that young women make only 82 percent of what their male peers do just one year out of college, many were at a loss to explain it.

All the traditional reasons typically trotted out to interpret the pay gap — that women fall behind when they leave the workforce to raise kids, for example, or that they don’t seek as many management roles — failed to justify this one. These young women didn’t have kids yet. The study took account of the differences in their academic majors. And because they were just one year removed from their undergraduate degrees, few of these women yet had the chance to go after (much less decline) leadership roles.

But there are other reasons why the pay gap remains so persistent, even in the very earliest stage of a young person’s career. The first is that no matter how many women may be getting college degrees, the university experience is still an unequal one. The second is that our higher-education system, for better and for worse, is not designed to focus on the economic consequences of our students’ years on campus.

Now that women are the majority of college students and surpass men in both the number of undergraduate and advanced degrees conferred, one might think the college campus is a pretty equal place. It is not. Studies show that while girls do better than boys in high school, they start to trail off during their college years. They enroll in different kinds of classes, tend to major in less rigorous subjects, and generally head off with less ambitious plans.

Sadly, young women also still experience a campus culture rife with sexism. At Amherst, accusations of rape and administrative inattention have recently roiled the campus. At Barnard, last spring’s announcement that President Obama was to be our commencement speaker unleashed a horrifying — and wholly unrelated — slew of sexist and sexually degrading comments in an online forum. And at Princeton, an ambitious 2011 report found that the number of women in leadership positions on campus was not only considerably lower than the number of men, but had actually declined since the early years of co-education.

As a result, it’s not surprising that even the best educated young women enter the workplace with a slight disadvantage. Their college experience leaves them somewhat confused, still stumbling over the dilemmas their grandmothers’ generation sought to destroy. Are they supposed to be pretty or smart? Strong or sexy? Sassy or submissive? All their lives, today’s young women have been pushed to embrace both perfection and passion — to pursue science and sports, math and theater — and do it all as well as they possibly can. No wonder they’re not negotiating for higher salaries as soon as they get out of school. They are too exhausted, and too scared of failing.

Legitimately, then, one might ask: What are we doing about it? Or, more precisely, what are America’s colleges and universities doing to ensure that their female graduates earn their fair share in the post-collegiate workplace? And the answer, to be honest, is “not much.”

It’s not because we don’t care. We do. The problem is that at American colleges — particularly the most elite ones — we simply are not programmed to care very much about what our students, regardless of their gender, earn after graduation. At our very core, we are about educating young minds to think, not training them for any particular career or paycheck.

In this regard, American education stands apart from most of the rest of the world. In England, the best and the brightest are culled by the age of 16 and then separated further by exams that propel them swiftly into specific degrees and careers. In Germany, students are tracked by the age of 10 into one of four different types of schools.

We don’t do that in the United States. Instead, we explicitly urge students not to focus on a single track of study. We make the scientists read poetry and the poets study chemistry, pushing our students to learn many things in which they might have no interest, and for which they are unlikely to receive any future compensation.

That’s a good thing. Indeed, it is arguably one of the reasons why innovation remains stronger in the United States than in just about any other country on earth, and why emerging powerhouses like China and Brazil are so interested in sending their students here. But it doesn’t give us the tools with which to tackle the more prosaic issue of post-graduate pay or pay equity.

The question we face now is whether we can afford this approach much longer. Unemployment in the United States still stands around 8 percent; that number is 17 percent among youth aged 16 to 24, and nearly 7 percent for recent graduates with a bachelor’s degree. Several observers have noted that, with employment prospects low and student loan debt at dizzying levels, college is no longer the fail-safe financial proposition it once was. For young women — who are now the majority of college students, who are more likely to hold student loans and who still earn, overall, 18 percent less than their male counterparts do — that equation is particularly fraught.

As a result of these harsh realities, the time has come for even the most elite undergraduate institutions to integrate economic concerns more explicitly into the college experience. At the very least, we need to better acknowledge the very real pressures that our students, and particularly our female students, are likely to face.

We don’t need to become trade schools, or demand that every undergraduate take courses in accounting or marketing. But we should offer our students more exposure to the real skills they will eventually need. We should make practical courses in areas such as finance or negotiation more widely available, even if not for academic credit. And we should be urging more young women who continue to shy away from math, engineering and computer science to go into these high-growth, high-paying fields of study.

At Barnard, we are trying to bring more of these practical yet essential opportunities to our students. In our Athena Center for Leadership Studies, for instance, we offer an entire curriculum in leadership skills, including seminars in finance, negotiation and presentations. And, time and again, we’ve seen the benefits that mentoring delivers. With Mayor Bloomberg’s Commission on Women’s Issues, we launched Mentor It Forward, a speed-dating of sorts for New York City college students and the women in the workplace they aspire to be. On campus, we also pair Barnard students with alumnae at the height of their professions because there’s nothing like getting the real story from someone who’s been where you want to go.

Such measures will not instantly close the pay gap confronting young women, or address the broader set of social pressures that continue to confound and confuse them. But they at least acknowledge that there is a problem, and that there are real things colleges can do to address it.

Debora Spar is the president of Barnard College.

Related articles:

Can we stop talking about the glass ceiling?

Time for more women to run our schools

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