diversity digest
Spring 01
next story
previous story
previous issue
institution profiles
recommended resources
diversity web

Diversity Workshops: Gender Equity--A Closer Look
By Carol S. Hollenshead, Director, Center for Continuing Education of Women
and Jeanne E. Miller, Librarian, Center for Continuing Education of Women, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Although excluded from higher education in the United States until Oberlin opened its doors to women in 1833, women made great strides in higher education during the latter part of the 19th century. Women comprised 19 percent of the nation's college students by 1900 and 40 percent by 1930. Women's successes resulted in widespread fears on the part of the higher education establishment of the "feminization" of higher education, and in response, some institutions set quotas on women's enrollment or segregated women into separate programs.

This past year, headlines in popular and academic presses alike have echoed the alarm of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As women's enrollments in undergraduate programs have surpassed those of men, some authors have argued that this constitutes a widespread crisis. A more comprehensive examination of issues affecting equity in higher education, however, simply does not support this view.

A recent National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women, concludes that women are more likely than their male peers to hold high educational aspirations, to enroll in college, and to persist to degree attainment. While the NCES data are valid, the issue of gender equity in higher education is far more complex than the NCES data imply. A report by Jacqueline King of the American Council on Education, Gender Equity in Higher Education, reveals that men's and women's enrollments in undergraduate programs vary widely by age, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic class.

While the headlines would lead us to believe that men's overall enrollment in education programs have plummeted, this is not the case. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of men enrolled in degree-granting programs grew by six percent between 1988 and 1998. And projections indicate that between 2001 and 2010, men's enrollment will continue to grow by 11.5 percent. While women's enrollment grew at a faster rate than men's in the last decade, much of this increase is due to enrollment of older women students. Gender differences in enrollments of traditionally-aged white populations, for example, are still very small (51 percent women vs. 49 percent men). Even though in recent years more women than men have earned degrees, it is still true that more men than women aged 25 and older have completed at least a bachelor's degree--27.5 percent of men as compared to 23.1 percent of women.

Moreover, as King points out, income is a powerful factor affecting men's college enrollment. More than 70 percent of men from high socioeconomic backgrounds, whether African-American or white, enter college immediately after high school, whereas only 25 percent of white males and 32 percent of African-American males from low socioeconomic backgrounds do so. Looked at another way, among traditionally-aged students from upper income families ($70,000 or more), equal or greater numbers of white, Hispanic, and Asian men than women were enrolled in post-secondary education.

Key findings in the recent American Association of University Women study Gaining a Foothold show that both women and men in lower income groups feel disadvantaged by lack of information and lack of assistance (e.g. test prep courses) in readiness for the SAT and similar tests. The "lack of money and/or financial aid" was "cited as the most significant obstacle for both men and women contemplating higher education."

In economic terms, the need for a college degree is greater for women than for men. Men with high school educations earned a median income of $31,477 in 1998, closer to the $36,559 median income of women college graduates than to the $22,780 median income of women high school graduates. This may help account for the large numbers of women over age 25 who return to school to complete bachelor's degrees.

It would seem then that the "problem" of gender equity in undergraduate enrollment has been oversimplified. Disaggregating the data is relatively easy and identifies those groups that colleges and universities need to target to improve the educational opportunities for all. Moreover, it is important to note that increases in college enrollments on the part of one group do not mean decreases in enrollment on the part of another. Over the past four decades, the total number of college degrees awarded has increased by more than 325 percent, indicating that higher education has proven to be an elastic commodity, not a finite resource.

In the debate about equity in higher education, the exclusive focus on undergraduate education is misleading. A full investigation of gender equity in higher education requires that we look at all aspects of the academy, not simply at undergraduate degrees. Although women receive more bachelor's degrees than men, men still outnumber women in the attainment of first professional degrees and Ph.D.s, and these differences remain significant in projected figures to 2010. At the doctoral level, women are greatly underrepresented in the physical sciences, engineering, and business, while they predominate only in education, psychology, health professions and allied health professions.

Continuing up the academic ladder, women certainly are not outstripping men among faculty and institutional leadership. According to the American Council on Education, women make up one-third of full-time instructional faculty; they range from 45 percent of faculty at public two-year colleges to less than 25 percent at public research and private doctoral universities. As reported by the American Association of University Professors, "Substantial disparities in salary, rank, and tenure between male and female faculty persist despite the increasing proportion of women in the academic profession." In spite of progress, women remain underrepresented in many disciplines, most notably the sciences and engineering.

The higher one looks in the academy, the fewer women one sees. Moreover, with few exceptions, an inverse relationship exists between the prestige of academic institutions and the proportion of women as students, on the faculty, and in leadership positions. For example, 53 percent of undergraduates at Harvard and Princeton are male, as are 51 percent at Yale, and 50 percent at Stanford. In contrast, 58 percent of public, two-year college students are women. At Carnegie Category III institutions (two-year colleges), 37.6 percent of full professors are women, whereas at Category I institutions (doctoral-granting institutions) only 13.8 percent of full professors are women. Overall, only 19 percent of college presidents are women. Looking more closely, one sees that the largest proportion of women presidents--22 percent--are found at two-year colleges. At doctoral-granting institutions, only 13 percent of presidents are women.

If we expand our discussion of gender equity to include race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and age, then the lesson for educators in the student data is the need to concentrate our time, resources and attention on the students--male and female--who are in greatest danger of being left behind, and to avoid becoming distracted by alleged crises that may have little basis in fact. Putting the emphasis on increasing access and success for all individuals means creating the following: pre-college programs aimed at under-represented segments of the male and female populations; transition programs to help lower-income students move from high school to two- and four-year degree programs; adequate need-based financial aid; and policies to ensure that the gains women have made in undergraduate education continue into the upper ranks of academia.

The current debate about gender equity in higher education tells us that in the media, the tendency to simplify the question has resulted in a "gender wars" construct regarding educational attainment. It is important that, as educators, we examine the facts carefully and work within our institutions to address inequities and with groups outside the academy to explicate the facts. As a community, we must remind the media and the general public that a careful look at the entire academic system reveals that women continue to lag behind men, that there are indeed groups of men--particularly non-whites--who are also missing opportunities, and that higher education has a tradition of growing to satisfy the needs of all potential users. Until we have achieved equity at all levels of higher education and at all types of institutions, our job will not be complete.

Sources Bae, Yupin et al., Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women (NCES 2000-030) (Washington, DC: U.S. USGPO, 2000); Benjamin, Ernst, "Disparities in the Salaries and Appointments of Academic Women and Men." Academe 85 (January-February 1999): 60-62; Bordin, Ruth, Women at Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999); Cox, Ana Marie and Robin Wilson, "Leaders of Nine Research Universities Pledge to Treat Female Scientists Better." The Chronicle of Higher Education 47 (February 9, 2001): A12; Digest of Education Statistics, 2000 (Washington, DC: U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, 2000): http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2001/digest/ (See especially Chapter 3 and Tables 8, 175, 178, 248, 257, 299, and 379); Gaining a Foothold: Women's Transitions Through Work and College (Washington, DC: American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 1999); King, Jacqueline E., Gender Equity in Higher Education (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, Center for Policy Analysis, 2000).

back to top

Carol S. Hollenshead
Jeanne E. Miller

The current debate about gender equity in higher education tells us that in the media, the tendency is to simplify the question has resulted in a "gender wars" construct regarding educational attainment.