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.
Women, leadership and higher ed
It’s time to reflect on strategies for women, not barriers.
More than half of all college students are now women. So why do so many men still run our schools?
Today’s college experience leaves women still stumbling over the dilemmas their grandmothers’ generation sought to destroy.
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.”