College-educated women finally reach gender equality in the US workforce
Victory! Source: Alastair Pike/AFP

If women form the majority of US college graduates, they should also form the majority of the country’s college-educated labour force. Or so the logic goes.

Data tells another story, however. But in fact, women have only just reached parity in the college-educated workforce, according to a new study from Pew Research.

Analysing data collected by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29.5 million women in the labour force had at least a bachelor’s degree, effectively matching the number of college-educated men in the workforce (29.3 million) as of the first quarter of 2019.

The findings provide a lesson in how gender plays a role in one’s transition from higher education into the workforce within a developed economy. International students, especially those from developed economies or economies transitioning into one, must be aware of the less than seamless route from campus to the office.

In the US, women started to receive the majority of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the 1981-82 academic year. In 2007, they also started to surpass the number of college-educated men in the adult population (ages 25 and older).

Once graduated, however, they do not enter the workforce at the same rate as their male peers. According to Bloomberg, they are 36 percent less likely to do so. There are many reasons for this: they’re usually the primary caregiver for their children, aging parents and ailing relatives, roles that require their full-time attention; flexible hours, which would allow them to balance this with their careers, are almost non-existent in today’s corporate landscape. If they exist, many come with a stunning lack of social and labour protection – something most women are further disadvantaged by.

Helping with children or other family members is cited as one of the main obstacles for college-educated women to enter, remain or climb the corporate ladder in the workforce. Not every developed economy experiences this, however. According to Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, other advanced industrialised countries with comprehensive family support policies saw their labour force participation increase significantly since 2000.

And while participation is now equal, pay isn’t. Women with bachelor’s degrees make on average US US$26,000 less than their male peers, according to a 2018 report by Georgetown University.

In many specific occupations, women also lag significantly in participation numbers. In top positions for business and government, US women are far behind in parity too.

“For example, women account for only 25% of college-educated workers in computer occupations and 15% of college-educated workers in engineering occupations. In some other occupations, such as office and administrative support and health care practitioners and technicians, women represent the majority of college-educated workers,” notes the report.

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