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While women outnumber men on campus, their later earnings remain stuck

On college campuses, women are making inroads in male-dominated fields like engineering and business. But that is not eliminating the earnings gaps in leadership and income in the workplace.
Ania Siniuk for NPR
On college campuses, women are making inroads in male-dominated fields like engineering and business. But that is not eliminating the earnings gaps in leadership and income in the workplace.

BOSTON — Madeline Szoo grew up listening to her grandmother talk of being laughed at when she spoke of going to college and becoming an accountant.

"'No one will trust a woman with their money,'" relatives and friends would scoff.

When Szoo excelled at math in high school, she got her share of ridicule too — though it was slightly subtler. "I was told a lot, 'You're smart for a girl,'" she said. "I knew other girls in my classes who weren't able to move past that."

But Szoo had no doubt she would go to college, and she's now a student at Northeastern University, studying chemical engineering and biochemistry. She plans on getting a Ph.D. and becoming a mentor to other women as they break through glass ceilings in fields such as hers.

Szoo is part of a long-running rise in the number of women pursuing higher education, while the percentage of students who are men has been declining — a trend that's beginning to hit even male-dominated fields such as engineering and business. The number of college-educated women in the workforce has now overtaken the number of college-educated men, according to the Pew Research Center.

While this would seem to have significant implications for society and the economy — since college graduates make more money over their lifetimes than people who haven't finished college — other obstacles have stubbornly prevented women from closing leadership and earnings gaps.

Women still earn 82 cents, on average, for every dollar earned by men, Pew reports — a figure that is nearly unchanged since 2002.

And after steadily increasing for more than a decade, the proportion of top managers of companies who are women declined last year, to less than 12%, according to the credit ratings and research company S&P Global.

"I think we're getting there, but it's slow," said Szoo, taking a break from her studies in a conference room at a gleaming new engineering and robotics building on Northeastern's campus.

That slow progress comes despite the fact that women now significantly outnumber men in college. The proportion of college students who are women is closing in on a record 60%, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Women who go to college are also 7 percentage points more likely than men to graduate, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports.

While engineering is one college discipline in which men continue to outnumber women, Northeastern has since 2022 been admitting slightly more female than male first-year engineering students.

Still, "in no way have we declared victory," said Elizabeth Mynatt, dean of Northeastern's Khoury College of Computer Sciences. For one thing, many of the rest of the degrees that women earn are disproportionately in lower-paying fields, such as social work (89% women) and teaching (83% women).

Women still make up fewer than a quarter of engineering majors nationwide and fewer than half of business majors — fields that can lead to higher-paying jobs.

"Even as we see some shifts and changes, disproportionate numbers of men are pursuing pathways through higher education that tend to lead to higher earnings," said Ruth Watkins, president of postsecondary education at the Strada Education Foundation, a nonprofit focused on postsecondary education and opportunity.

As in Szoo's case, the disparity often begins in high school, where classes in subjects such as math, engineering and computer science "are still pretty gendered," said Mynatt. "And if you don't know you want to be a computer scientist as a sophomore in high school, you're going to have a hard time getting into that program."

As early as middle school, more than twice as many boys as girls say they plan to work in science or engineering-related jobs, one study by researchers at Harvard University found.

A Northeastern engineering major who recently graduated, Carly Tamer, said she wasn't outright discouraged to pursue that subject in high school, "but there wasn't strong encouragement."

Other factors, beginning in college, perpetuate this gap. Even with enrollment now female dominated, women make up only a little more than a third of full professors, according to the American Association of University Women, and a third of college presidents, says a report from the American Council on Education.

Women who start in engineering in college are more likely than men to change their majors. Nearly half of the women who originally planned to major in science or engineering switch to something else, compared with fewer than a third of men.

"It was awful," Mynatt said of her own experience as an engineering student in the 1980s, before she changed her major to computer science. "It was very male dominated. It had such a weed-out culture. I didn't like the culture. It was about intellectual superiority and competing with the person next to you."

That weed-out approach can be particularly tough on high achievers accustomed to positive reinforcement, Tamer noted. "It can scare people away." She said having more women around her, as she did in Northeastern's engineering program, proved more supportive.

Juggling many responsibilities

Once they move from college to the workforce, women still overwhelmingly bear family caregiving responsibilities that can interrupt their careers, said Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard.

"The career path associated with decision-making jobs and highly paid jobs, their design logic and even their language is still firmly rooted in a 1960s paradigm," said Fuller. "If you go to a big global company, the path to the C-suite anticipates one or two international assignments, four or five relocations, very demanding work hours. There's nothing that prevents a man or a woman from making those commitments, but if you're the principal caregiver, those burdens still disproportionately fall on women."

Caregiving responsibilities also come at points in workers' careers when they are developing networks and relationships, Fuller said.

A study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and the women's advocacy organization Lean In finds that, even as they are more likely than men to finish college, women in corporate roles are less likely to be promoted from entry-level jobs to management positions. Eighty-seven women advanced to management positions in their companies, it found, for every 100 men.

Researchers call this obstacle more of a "broken rung" than a glass ceiling.

It’s not that women don't want to be promoted: 9 in 10 say they aspire to move up, and 3 in 4 want to become senior managers, the McKinsey & Company study found.

Yet 75% of senior management jobs are held by men, S&P Global reports.

"The fundamental bias and the systemic issues in corporate America that are fueling women's underrepresentation — they haven't changed," said Caroline Fairchild, Lean In's vice president of education.

Changing the discussion

Among the many reasons for this, Fairchild said, is that men are more likely to find professional mentors and role models.

There has been progress of another kind, however, Mynatt noted: Those many college-educated women entering the workforce, especially in male-dominated industries, are changing perspectives.

She told the story of a female computer scientist who used algorithms to identify the kinds of wrist injuries that show up on X-rays after accidents, versus the kind that might be the result of domestic violence.

"The technology was there. The issue was, who was motivated to ask the question?" Mynatt explained. "What matters is that the women bring the problem to the team. When you bring in diverse voices, it shifts things culturally across the board."

Another change: The more women there are in senior leadership positions, the less gender-stereotyped language their companies use, according to researchers at Duke University, Stanford University, Columbia University and the University of Chicago.

At Northeastern, women students in engineering and computer science have won awards for projects such as an app that people can use to anonymously report harassment, catcalling and sexual assault.

As for Madeline Szoo, she hopes to use her chemical engineering degree to help treat cancer.

After her plans for an accounting degree were thwarted, Szoo's grandmother became a middle school teacher and then started her own business — for which she did her own accounting.

"We're definitely the type of people who, if you say we can't do it," Szoo said, "we will prove you wrong."

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Copyright 2024 Hechinger Report

Jon Marcus
[Copyright 2024 Vermont Public]