Is higher ed to blame for lack of gender, racial equity in workforce?

A new report from Georgetown Law Center unveils gaps in key industries, fueled by lack of representation of Blacks, Hispanics and women in top fields.

The segregation of race and gender that exists in many top workforce industries is a direct result of a lack representation that women and ethnic minorities have in those areas in higher education, according to new research from the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown University.

Historic bias in terms of access as well as a lack of affordability limit diversity in a variety of fields–notably STEM and business–and foster occupational segregation. In its report “Exclusion to Opportunity”, Georgetown researchers note that those gaps are “substantial” and that it is impacting the American economy.

“Occupational segregation deepens income, wealth, and labor market inequities; corrodes our nation’s potential for innovation and leadership; and reinforces pipeline-level barriers such as racism and sexism in postsecondary institutions,” Georgetown study authors noted in their 80-page report. “Students of particular races and genders—namely Black and Brown students and women—typically fare worse in various ways when pursuing a four-year degree than students who are white or men. Racism, sexism, discrimination, and unaffordability have posed barriers to their inclusion and achievement at postsecondary education institutions.”

Their report makes the case that institutions of higher education should be far more proactive in building communities that are not only more ethnically and income diverse but helping expand the numbers of those students entering and staying committed to degree paths in high-impact fields such as computer science and engineering. That also includes the promotions of more women and minorities into top faculty positions. In turn, they say that will get more students interested in those careers and improve the workforce in the future.

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It isn’t simply getting students through the gates on campuses that matters–although the outcomes are far better for four-year degree holders in terms of getting jobs and better earnings–it is that the fields that they are often segregated from are more lucrative. This statement in the report sums up the plight of women, in particular: “A student’s future pay is higher if their field of study is dominated by men, and lower if their field of study is dominated by women.” And it isn’t solely restricted to gender. For example, “nearly half of all Black women need to change their specific occupations to diffuse their labor market segregation and match white men’s distribution across occupations.”

Researchers point out that bachelor’s degree holders don’t always work in fields for which they majored. However, it would be difficult for a graduate who didn’t complete studies in engineering to get a job in engineering. The first jobs of most students are in industries they identified and pursued during their college years. The historic underrepresentation of women, Blacks and Latinx students in STEM fields means they likely will miss out on career positions in industries that will be booming long into the future.

It is magnified when they are excluded, or exclude themselves because of uneasiness, from those fields in postsecondary education. The percentage of men in college who major in engineering, for example, is 13%, compared with just 3% of women. Similarly, 24% of men pursue business degrees, while only 15% of women do. The gap in computer science has widened now to 9% of men and just 2% of women. At the other end of the spectrum, women top men in the education field 3-1 (which is why there are also calls for more men to help balance instruction in K-12 schools) and in health care at nearly 4-1. Even women who do major in STEM are more than twice as likely as men to abandon studies. Between 83% and 90% of all Black and Latinx students who start out as computer science majors don’t complete degrees in that field.

So what can be done by colleges to change the trajectory? Researchers offered up a number of solutions:

  • Colleges should avoid differential pricing, that is increasing cost for certain majors, which can exacerbate affordability issues for students who might typically struggle with paying for higher education.
  • Institutions should work to help students in need who may be working or have other commitments to retain them in majors that require extra time in challenging but lucrative majors.
  • Colleges should allow more flexibility in terms of transfer and transfer credits, ensuring that students who do want to pursue these majors can do so relatively unimpeded and without additional cost.
  • Researchers say more welcoming advising and peer-to-peer support is essential. “Fields of study with chilly climates do not serve as inclusive pathways for structurally excluded students to enter more segregated professions,” the report notes.
  • Perform surveys and track data to show how well initiatives are working and adjust policies accordingly.
  • Faculty should not be instructing in ways that perpetuate staid norms in those fields, which can often add further barriers for those students.
  • Increase the number of faculty and leaders who represent the entire community, not just one subgroup.
Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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