Educated women comprise half of workforce for first time

For decades, women have commanded the majority of the enrolled undergraduate population. At the turn of the century, roughly 57 percent of enrolled undergraduates were women; as of 2017, this proportion is almost exactly the same. 

However, until recently, this educational majority hasn’t translated into a workforce majority. Since 2013, the portion of college-educated women in the workforce has hovered around 49 percent. 

Last month, that changed; for the first time in history, women comprise more than half of the college-educated workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last month, the Bureau counted 29.234 million educated women, compared to 29.069 million men; and although the difference may seem marginal, this is a crucial milestone for the female workforce.

“To the extent that women’s earning power would be on par with men, it’s going to lift a lot of women – in particular, single parent households or single mothers – lift them out of poverty,” said Karrin Taylor Robson, secretary of the Arizona Board of Regents. “There’s billions of dollars in pay disparity, and more often than not, in single parent households, they’re led by women. So, when women have a pay disadvantage, that necessarily translates into their household income, given their additional responsibilities for raising kids, which has disproportionately been borne by women in single-parent households.”

According to the Census Bureau, women-led households comprised roughly 26 percent of all households in 1980; 38 years later, this figure has jumped to 30.5 percent. Yet even with the added responsibilities that come with leading a household, women have noticeably less earning power than men.  

As of 2017, women’s median annual earnings were $41,997, compared to men’s $52,146, according to the American Association of University Women. This means that, on average, women earn 80 percent of men’s earnings.  

“One would expect that women making up half of the workforce would be able to make some headway when it comes to the wage gap between men and women, which has been a persistent challenge for everyone,” Robson said. “Women now are making about 80% of what men do, and that’s further divided by geography and profession and so on and so forth. I would hope that once we cross the threshold of having more women with college degrees than men, that we can make some inroads in closing that wage gap.”

With this milestone, female workers may have more leverage when negotiating compensation and benefits. In fact, this has already become a trend in corporations. According to consulting firm Mercer, the share of firms offering paid parental leave rose from 24 to 40 percent between 2015 and 2018. 

Women are also commanding more leadership positions within large corporations. As of late June, women make up 27 percent of all S&P 500 company board members, marking the first time in history that women have held more than one in four board seats.

Nevertheless, there’s still progress to be made. With women comprising 57 percent of the college-enrolled population but just 50 percent of the college-educated, working population, there is a seven percent disparity to be covered. This likely falls on societal constructs, Robson notes.

“[The difference] is probably traditional roles in society for women who get married, and they voluntarily take themselves out of the workforce to raise kids and families; and there’s probably other factors, but that’s probably the biggest,” Robson said. 

Ben Norman

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