Women’s Participation in Higher Education Promotes Change

Women’s participation in higher education is a dynamic force. Next year, 202, is the 100th anniversary of women being allowed to vote. That event was a starting point for women to have opportunities to strive for equity in education, business and society.

In the past 100 years women have achieved a great deal in diverse fields such as business, medicine and law. Many of their achievements are due to increased women’s participation in higher education. However, there still is a large gap between the women who hold leadership positions in their professions and the majority of women in the U.S.  Closing that gap and creating opportunities for women’s participation in higher education and leadership in business will create positive change in US and world markets.

Women’s participation in higher education has increased significantly in recent years. In the 2015-16 academic year women earned the greatest share degrees at every level. They earned 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees and almost 53 percent of doctoral degrees.  That’s a long way from 1940 when the highest level of education for the majority of the US population was eighth grade, and only 4 percent of women and 6 percent of men had completed four years of higher education. Women took the lead in higher education attainment in 1988, outnumbering men in academic programs and attainment.  Women are also achieving high academic honors. This year about two-thirds of the American class of Rhodes Scholars is women.

There are many reasons to advance women’s participation in higher education and promote women’s leadership in business. Improving women’s education attainment and business leadership will strengthen the position of the US in world. The World Economic Forum 2017 Global Gender Gap Index shows that the US is first in women’s education attainment. However, the US ranks 19th in women’s economic participation and opportunity. Increasing women’s leadership in business will place the US on level with peer countries.

Even though women’s participation in higher education and attainment has outranked men’s, women’s leadership is much lower than men’s. For example, women are about 45 percent of law associates, but only 22.7 percent of partners. They are 40 percent of all doctors and surgeons but only 16 percent of medical school deans. Women are 61 percent of accountants but only 12.5 percent of CFOs in Fortune 500 companies.

This leaves many opportunities for women and the companies they work for to increase the numbers of women in leadership positions as well as participation of women in higher education. And there are many reasons for companies to do so. At the managerial level, 41 percent of female managers are engaged in their jobs, compared to 35 percent of male managers. And these female managers are better at engaging their employees. The Gallup report “Women in America” shows that employees who work for a female manager are 6 percentage points more engaged that those who work for male managers.

Important leadership attributes are at the top of the list of in-demand skills for businesses today. “Women on Boards” report shows that women have many of these skills. “Women bring an array of essential qualities to the workplace. Women are empathic listeners, who value collaboration and teamwork while also acting as experts at building relationships, encouraging others to achieve their maximum potential.” These skills complement skills that men exhibit in the workplace such as risk-taking. 

Different viewpoints, ideas and leadership can enhance business productivity. A Catalyst study of Fortune 500 companies investigated companies’ return on equity, sales and invested capital. It reported that companies with the highest representation of women on boards of directors had higher financial performance than those with the lowest representation of women. Only 4.4 percent of the companies employed women CEOs.

Improving women’s participation in higher education is a strategic investment that companies can make to increase women’s achievements and company productivity. Education benefits can help employees complete higher education and, especially for women, lead to greater representation in leadership positions.  Student loan repayment assistance will help women who already have a degree to continue their education at higher levels. Furthering women’s participation in higher education will benefit the companies that have their leadership, as well as improve the equity of opportunity for women. Jane Miller, Chief Operating Officer at Gallup states, “As leaders, it is our responsibility to be courageous and create change in the workplace. We have to examine, and even overhaul, our organizational policies, strategies, cultures and values to ensure that employees can maximize their potential in and out of the workplace.”