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How Professional Women Will Eventually Outnumber Men in the Workplace

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Kate Harveston

Not your typical liberal millennial.

Women in the workplace have struggled for decades, mostly due to imposed traditional gender roles and stereotyping. From the very right to have a job to feeling welcome in their workplace, it’s been an uphill battle for women to live the professional life they’ve always dreamed of. Women continue to fight to be respected as professional equals by their male counterparts.

2017 marks a turning point for the number of women and men in professional work spaces. As more men decide not to go to college, women are taking over. Men cite various hesitations about attending college. Their reasoning ranges from higher education being a waste of money to believing that they have a better chance of success pursuing endeavors like entrepreneurial aspirations and trade work. Whatever the reason may be, the statistics are showing an interesting trend toward professional settings numerically dominated by women.

However, there are still many struggles facing professional women in the workplace. Let’s take a look at what this shift really means.

The Number of Women vs. Men in Higher Education

Only a few decades ago, in the sixties and seventies, women (particularly white women) began attending college in greater numbers. While some women in wealthy families may have pursued degrees, they likely never used their education once they met a suitable husband.

The sexual revolution and the emergence of second-wave feminism from the 1960s into the 1980s made a significant impact. The movement that is now referred to as “second-wave feminism” emerged after World War II and focused heavily on breaking down perceived gender roles, both in the workplace and beyond. Additionally, the FDA approval of the birth control pill opened up a wide range of opportunities for young women in particular. Access to the pill before age 21 has been determined to be the most influential factor in enabling collegiate women to complete their degree.

It’s important to note that while the women’s movement of the sixties brought about significant changes, it primarily impacted middle-class white women. The movement was not fully intersectional, meaning that it failed to take into account issues related to race, class, and sexual orientation.

It does appear that today, women are taking advantage of the opportunities they’ve built for themselves more than ever before, while it appears that many men are not. Although more people are choosing to go to college overall, there are almost twice as many women choosing to expand their education than men. One possible explanation is women tend to have a higher appreciation for education than men because they have historically been denied access to education, especially marginalized individuals who have experienced oppression and poverty. Additionally, skilled careers that tend to be chosen by women, such as nursing and teaching, did not require a degree in the past. Once that change occurred, the number of women seeking higher education increased.

We’re also seeing that male college students have a higher dropout rate than female students. In fact, about 30% of men decide not to go back to school at some point during their freshman year. This means that not only are more women starting school, but they’re also more likely to finish.

Women who have access to contraceptives and abortion care now have the power to choose when and if they will become mothers. Not all women can access or afford reproductive healthcare and these services are further threatened under the Trump administration, but access has greatly increased since the sixties. Without the constraints of an unplanned pregnancy and assumed roles as homemakers, women are better able to expand their roles as collegiate scholars and professionals.

Why Education Is Different for Men and Women

There are many reasons why we’re starting to see this discrepancy between the number of male and female college students and, ultimately, the number of women in the workforce. One popular argument is that it all relates back to the abilities young men and women believe they have when entering college.

Many boys were raised to believe they can do whatever they put their mind to. With an overwhelming sense of confidence, they enter school believing they will succeed in whatever they choose. When they get to school, they realize that maybe they weren’t as well-equipped as they once believed, or that more than self-confidence is needed to succeed. Men might start out discrediting any perceived barriers to professional success, whereas women generally understand the possible existence of gender barriers from the get-go and prepare ahead of time to be ready for them.

Other males may believe they don’t need college to become successful. With the number of tech millionaires who were able to create their start-ups without a college degree, many young men may feel it’s possible for them to achieve their goals without getting a traditional education. While this may be true for some, it definitely isn’t the norm.

Men are also more likely to take high-paying jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree. Trade jobs, positions in the gas or oil industry, and manufacturing are all typically filled by men. The access and ability to take on these positions may contribute to more men choosing not go to college. 

When it comes down to it, most men in the United States may not even realize how lucky they are to have the option to receive an education. One study found evidence that boys have historically been trained to think that they don’t need to obey rules or work hard, which is applicable to the modern-day construct of needing an education to advance in the world. It’s easier to take something for granted when you’ve never been denied access to it. Women, on the other hand, have had to fight hard for the privilege to get an education, and more initiatives are being put in place to help women understand what an education truly can mean for them.

The Future of Women in the Workplace

Unfortunately, just because more and more women are choosing to go to school does not necessarily mean they will succeed after college. In many ways, women continue to struggle against their male counterparts.

Many women attend college, including graduate school, to work a job that does not pay very well. Positions like teaching, nursing, and social work all require continuous education and training, but they often offer lower pay than some jobs that only require a Bachelor’s degree, such as some careers in sales, marketing, and business.

This means women are graduating with high student loans that they may not be able to pay back. In other words, student loan debt can be gendered due to the gendered division of labor that exists in our society, and it appears we may see an increase in this trend. And with newly minted, Trump-friendly Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ plan to nix student loan forgiveness, women will likely struggle even more than they have in past years to pay off their student loan debt.

But it isn’t only women who choose lower-paying career paths who are struggling. Women who wish to become doctors or lawyers can also face discrimination after graduation that holds them back from being successful. In the medical field, women are encouraged to take positions in lower-paying specialties, such as family practice and pediatrics, even if they’re just as qualified as their male coworkers.

Additionally, it is well-known that there are race barriers as well as gender barriers in employment, so this trend may affect women of color, especially those in disadvantaged areas, even more. A 2015 study found a strong correlation between the level of racial inequality in employment in metro areas and the extent to which unemployed workers tend to live in neighborhoods with higher unemployment rates, especially when it comes to unemployed workers of color.

Change develops over time. If there are currently more women attending college than men, the stigma that women do not wish to work or do not care about their careers will wash away. As more women enter the professional workplace than men, we can establish strong female leaders in all industries.

When it comes down to it, it isn’t a battle between men and women. Although fewer men are choosing to go to school — and leaving more opportunities open for women — we want people of all genders to be equally successful. And as women continue to focus on their own professional development and advancing the careers they choose to have, we will hopefully see fewer instances of discrimination.