Higher Education And Gender Research Paper

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In this research paper I sketch the relative position of men and women in higher education. I examine three distinct aspects of the educational system: access, college experiences, and post-collegiate outcomes. Women fare relatively well in the area of access, less so in terms of the college experience, and are particularly disadvantaged with respect to the outcomes of schooling.

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Higher education is defined as formal enrollment and degree acquisition at the college and university level. While educational systems differ across countries, most distinguish between primary (elementary), secondary (high school) and tertiary levels of education (see UNESCO 1998 for details). As elementary and secondary education become increasingly universal, higher education becomes increasingly salient as the basis for educational stratification.

1. Access To College In The United States

In the United States women now represent the majority of students in the system of higher education. In 1995, 55.4 percent of students enrolled in college were women. During the 1990s, women high school graduates were five percentage points more likely to enroll in college than were men (64.7 versus 59.7 percent, respectively). Women’s share of degrees climbed steadily during the 1970s and 1980s, a period when the fraction of college-age young adults enrolled in school increased slowly but steadily. By 1982, women surpassed men in the number of bachelor’s degrees earned. Women have garnered more bachelor’s degrees than their male counterparts ever since. By 1995, 54.6 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients were women. Women earned 59.5 percent of two-year degrees, 52.7 percent of master’s and professional degrees, and 39.3 percent of doctoral degrees (National Center for Educational Statistics 1997).

Women remain slightly overrepresented in lower-ranked schools, as indexed by higher acceptance rates, higher student faculty ratios, lower standardized test scores, and lower fees (Jacobs 1999). The small remaining sex gap is due to two factors: (a) the relative scarcity of women in schools with large engineering programs (engineering programs tend to be above average in selectivity); and (b) the tendency of women to enroll in school part time, since lower-status institutions are more likely to accept part-time students. Selected reports on admissions as well as enrollment from leading institutions indicate that women are well represented among recent entering classes, except in schools that prominently feature engineering programs. There is some evidence that some liberal arts colleges are worried that they are enrolling too many women, and are starting to take steps to recruit men (New York Times 1998).

The parity women have achieved in college completion is a recent phenomenon, but the 1950s and 1960s represented a historically depressed level. Women represented 41.3 percent of college graduates in 1940, slipping to 23.9 in 1950 and remaining at an historically low 35.0 percent in 1960 (US Bureau of the Census 1975). Goldin (1997) estimates, based on retrospective reports from the 1940 Census, that women’s college enrollment rates exceeded 90 percent of men’s from the late 1890s until the mid 1920s, although the inclusion of normal schools arguably inflates Goldin’s figures.

For the entire twentieth century in the United States, women have comprised a large proportion of students in primary and secondary schools. Women’s rate of enrollment among 5–19 year olds has exceeded 90 percent of men’s rate since as early as 1850, and 98 percent since 1890. Women have represented the majority of high school graduates since at least 1870: in 1920 over 60 percent of high school graduates were women (US Bureau of the Census 1975, 369–70, 379). The median years of schooling completed by women exceeded men for most of this century until the G. I. Bill after World War II enabled men to surpass women.

2. International Comparisons

Women in the United States have surpassed their counterparts in other countries in access to schooling at both the secondary and tertiary levels for more than a century. Today, the United States enrolls more college students per capita than virtually any other country, and women’s share of college enrollments in the United States exceeds that in most other countries. (Data for selected countries are presented in Jacobs 1996. See also UNESCO 1998.) In most of the advanced industrial countries of Europe, women’s share of enrollments is quite high. But even here, substantial variation persists, with women’s share ranging from 40 percent of college students in Switzerland and 41 percent in Germany to 55 percent in France and 61 percent in Portugal. Women fared well in terms of schooling in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe (Kelly and Slaughter 1991), and socialist regimes in developing countries typically emphasized schooling for girls in their initial years in power. The post-socialist experience warrants close scrutiny, as women’s status is eroding in many spheres in these countries (Biaecki and Heyns 1993).

Women’s share of enrollment in Latin American colleges and universities is often quite high: Brazil, 53 percent; Argentina, 47 percent; Chile, 42 percent. Asian countries follow: in both China and India one-third of college students are women. African countries include many with the lowest share of female enrollments in the world. Within each of these regions, there is substantial variation in the share of women’s enrollment.

Gender disparities are highest at the tertiary level, as young men are typically the first to pursue college. Gender disparities in expenditures are greater than those in enrollments, because college education is more expensive than elementary or secondary schooling.

3. The Educational Process

Women and men experience college differently, and face markedly different outcomes. Of the many respects in which the college experience differs by gender, here I consider fields of study and faculty representation.

Women and men pursue different fields of study in college. In the United States, 30 percent of women would have to change fields of study in order to be distributed in the same manner as men (Jacobs 1995a). The sex typing of fields of study is a worldwide phenomenon yet it varies between countries. For example, 51.6 percent of engineering students are women in Kuwait, compared with 3.3 percent in Switzerland and Japan (UNESCO 1998). One of the most striking contrasts is within the divided Germany: in the former East Germany, 32.4 percent of engineering graduates were women, compared with only 7.5 percent in West Germany. In Poland, 62.7 percent of mathematics and computer science degrees went to women, compared with 35.9 percent in the US and 21.0 percent in Egypt.

In the United States during the early 1960s, women were concentrated in an extremely limited range of fields. Education drew almost half of women under-graduates, and over 70 percent of women graduates were concentrated in just six fields: education, English, fine arts, nursing, history, and home economics. Now business is the leading field of study for women. In 1995, women garnered 52.3 percent of life science bachelor’s degrees, 46.8 percent of mathematics degrees, 48.0 percent of business degrees, but only 17.2 percent of engineering degrees. Segregation across majors declined substantially from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, but has reached a plateau since 1985 (Jacobs 1995a).

Women have not always been segregated into separate fields from men. Founders of the most prominent women’s colleges tried hard to maintain curricula that matched or exceeded men’s in scope. During the early years of land-grant schools, no separate curriculum for women existed. A peculiarly feminine curriculum began to emerge with the development of home economics. This development reflected an enduring emphasis on female domesticity, but also was promoted in part by women academics, who were excluded from other fields and sought to create a field of expertise and set of job opportunities for which they would be uniquely suited. At the same time, this development contributed to the emergence of a distinctively feminine college experience for young women that served to limit the career prospects of many female graduates.

Men represent the great majority of college and university faculty worldwide (see UNESCO 1998, Jacobs 1996). In the United States, 33.4 percent of faculty were women in 1993. Women’s representation declines with the prestige of the institution: 45.3 percent in public two-year schools, 33.9 percent in the public comprehensive schools, and 23.3 percent in public research universities. The number of women also declines with faculty rank. Women represent 42.1 percent of assistant professors, 30.0 percent of associate professors, and 17.0 percent of professors (National Center for Educational Statistics 1997). The US record actually looks quite favorable by comparison with the professoriat in Britain and France, which were 2.3 and 8.7 percent female, respectively, during the early 1980s. Graham (1978) notes that women’s representation on the faculty of US colleges and universities actually declined between 1930 and 1970, before beginning a sustained advance during the 1970s and 1980s.

There are many reasons why women’s entrance into faculty positions is so low. Until recently women were a small proportion of Ph.D. recipients; women are concentrated in a limited number of fields; women entered academia in large numbers during a period of retrenchment, and pursued fields that were facing sharp declines in enrollments (Slaughter 1993). Nonetheless, women’s progress remains far slower than would be expected. Viewed optimistically, if a sizable fraction of women who are currently assistant professors are granted tenure, then the sex composition of the faculty will change dramatically from 2000–2020. Parity is unlikely for quite a long time because of the number of fields in which women Ph.D.s remains severely underrepresented (Ransom 1990).

Much research has examined the position of women faculty members (see Chamberlain 1988, Jacobs 1996 for reviews). Studies have examined gender inequality with respect to hiring patterns, promotion rates, publication rates, mobility between institutions, job satisfaction, turnover, salaries, and the sense of personal and professional marginalization.

The notion of cumulative disadvantage seems to be a reasonable summary of the underrepresentation of women in faculty positions. In other words, women have been disadvantaged to some extent in every stage of the academic career process. This would account for women’s underrepresentation in the higher echelons of university administration, in higher ranks, and in higher-status institutions. Graham (1978) suggests that the extreme exclusion of women from Ivy League institutions undermined the position of all women faculty, because, with the emergence of the research university as the pinnacle of the higher education system, these schools came to set the pattern for higher education as a whole.

A number of researchers see the position of women faculty as evidence of a ‘chilly climate’ for women throughout higher education (Sandler 1986). But the effects of faculty composition on students continue to be debated. Tidball (1980, 1986) finds that the proportion of female faculty is strongly associated with the number of women high achievers, even in coeducational schools. This finding is probably less vulnerable to the lack of institutional controls than are Tidball’s findings regarding women’s colleges, and is a result that bears further scrutiny with longitudinal data. Rothstein (1995) finds that women students with female advisors are more likely to continue their education after college. Evidence on student satisfaction with same-sex advisors (Erkut and Mokros 1984) and faculty (Ehrenberg et al. 1995) is mixed. These issues require more detailed investigation of particular environments on particular groups of women, such as math and science majors. Sadker and Sadker (1993) make the case for gender bias in the classroom, but this evidence is principally based on research in high schools.

4. Educational Outcomes

Much of the discussion on gender inequality in the labor market has been written in response to the writings of the human capital school of economics which holds that gender inequality stems from inadequate investments on the part of women (Jacobs 1995b). As we have seen, this is no longer the case in the United States. England (1992) has noted that working women have surpassed men in median years of schooling completed for much of the century; only during the period since the G. I. Bill have men surged past women. By the 1990s, working women once again caught up with men in average educational attainment (author’s estimate, based on the March 1993 Current Population Survey).

Gender differences in earnings persist despite the parity in education attained by women. The median annual income of female college graduates is approximately 70 percent of that earned by their male counterparts (Jacobs 1996). Women earn less than men even with the same level of education. Indeed, the sex gap in earnings within educational levels is similar to that in the labor force as a whole.

The economic benefits of college have increased since the mid-1970s. The gender gap in earnings has narrowed at all educational levels, due in part to the decline in men’s earnings (Bernhardt et al. 1995). Yet the gender gap in earnings among college graduates remains similar to that at other educational levels.

A significant portion of the gender gap in earnings can be attributed to gender differences in majors. Majors play a larger role in early career earnings, although they may influence later career earnings indirectly through occupational tracking. Formal schooling does not exhaust the range of possible sources of skill differences between men and women. The gender gap in wages may be due in part to gender differences in skills acquired in on-the-job training and informal experience. Space does not permit an in-depth exploration of all the sources of gender inequality in the labor market. The point here is that the gender gap in earnings in the United States does not stem from the fact that women spend too few years in formal schooling.

Studies find that higher education results in more support for egalitarian gender role attitudes on the part of women, particularly if the students took courses related to women’s roles in society (Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991, p. 316). Other authors suggest that education increases women’s support for feminism. Freeman, for example, (1975) maintains that education raises women’s expectations and creates a sense of relative deprivation, leading them to support feminism.

As noted above, economists distinguish between the private returns to schooling—such as higher wages and higher household income—and the social or public returns, which may involve improvements to health, welfare, and society. Two principal nonmonetary effects of schooling that have been extensively researched are improved infant health and lower fertility. In developing countries, women with more education marry later, are more likely to use contraceptives, desire smaller families, have their first child later (but breastfeed for fewer months), and have a lower total fertility rate than do less educated women (Schultz 1993a, 1993b). Much of the research described by Schultz compares girls with primary education to those with no education in developing countries, but the depressing effect of education on fertility is a consistent finding in affluent countries as well.

The 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (1995), held in Cairo, stressed the importance of empowering women in order to promote sustainable economic development and population control. Women’s education is a central element in this agenda. Education may thus have significant implications for women’s status with respect to gender relations throughout society, but these effects are historically contingent and depend on the character as well as the extent of women’s education.

5. Conclusion

I have suggested that access, process, and outcomes are distinct aspects of higher education that need to be examined separately. The trends in these areas often do not coincide with one another, and consequently separate explanations of these facets of higher education are needed. For example, women remain a minority of faculty, and are disadvantaged in terms of rank and institutional prestige. Yet as students in the United States, women represent a majority of students at nearly all levels of higher education, and are not distinctly disadvantaged in terms of institutional position. Clearly, treating women’s standing among the faculty and in the study body as one phenomenon will not do, since the extent of women’s progress differs between these two statuses.

In my view, the principal challenge facing research on gender in education is to go beyond documenting specific gender effects to developing a more theoretically motivated account of the status of women in the educational system. This perspective would have to account for the relative status of women in each aspect of the educational system, as well as accounting for variation across time and space. The challenge is to situate gender inequality economically, historically, culturally, and politically. The substantial research in various fields on women in education should set the stage for the next generation of researchers to tackle some of the fundamental issues regarding gender and the educational system. In particular, the relationship between gender inequality in education and that in the rest of society is a fundamental question for future theory and research.


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