Every Learner Everywhere

Ways Higher Education Can Embrace Equity for Female Students, Staff, and Faculty

Every Learner Honors International Women’s Day 2023

We can all challenge gender stereotypes, call out discrimination, draw attention to bias, and seek out inclusion. Collective activism is what drives change. From grassroots action to wide-scale momentum, we can all embrace equity.

How will you embrace equity?

When I was ten years old, my mother enrolled in college. She had gone to nursing school as a young woman, but nursing education had changed quite a lot in the twenty years since then, and all of the higher paying jobs were now going to nurses with bachelor’s degrees. I remember my mother sitting at the kitchen table late at night reading textbooks and taking notes on legal pads. As she progressed in her program, there were papers to write. This meant heaving a large, metal typewriter up onto the kitchen table, rolling in paper one piece at a time, establishing the margins, and tapping out words letter by letter because my mother had never taken a typing class. What I just wrote in the last five minutes on my laptop would have probably taken her over an hour.

Despite being the primary caregiver of four children, working five 3:00 pm – 11:00 pm shifts per week, and being expected by society (and my father) to manage all things in the household, my mother persisted in her education and earned not only a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree in nursing. Her life changed in extraordinary ways because of this accomplishment. My mother was able to quit her two part-time jobs and take a 9-5 job doing clinical trials in a research hospital. Her pay nearly doubled and she got benefits she’d never had before in a job including paid sick days, paid vacation, and health insurance. Her new position also changed her physically. She began to dress in stylish clothes and started having her hair styled once a week. Now sleeping better on a 9-5 work schedule, she felt less frazzled during the day. I noted on my visits home from college how she radiated a confidence I’d never seen in her before.

Perhaps the biggest change resulting from her earning a master’s degree was in my mother’s relationship with my father. They now had equal levels of education. And with her new salary, she could be financially independent. She now made demands of her husband unthinkable before. My father began to take on some household and parenting tasks. He started taking her out to dinner on a weekly basis. He asked her opinion on medical issues he was facing, and he spoke to her more respectfully.

My father’s transformation was unexpected and shocking to me. He was no feminist, but he tried to be more of a partner to my mother rather than treating her as someone whose role it was to take care of the domestic sphere of his life. My mother’s equal educational and financial footing made my father a better husband, a better father, and a better person. In addition, my mother’s educational achievement and financial security allowed her four children to attend college, and that has had a ripple effect on the educational aspirations and financial security of my mother’s eight grandchildren.

Educational and Financial Equity

My mother’s story may not be universal, but there is evidence that educational and financial equity for women benefits all of us. According to the International Monetary Fund, “Investment in women’s education and health, and attention to their employment opportunities and empowerment, pays big dividends in terms of economic development.” Girls’ education is a strategic priority for the World Bank in ending global poverty: “Better educated women tend to be more informed about nutrition and healthcare, have fewer children, marry at a later age, and their children are usually healthier, should they choose to become mothers. They are more likely to participate in the formal labor market and earn higher incomes.” The Brookings Institute even suggests that investing in girls’ and women’s education can help mitigate the effects of climate change. “One of the most effective strategies for curbing global carbon emissions is to slow population growth…Slowing population growth is also far cheaper than other strategies to address climate change, such as low-carbon energy investment whether it be to solar or nuclear or biofuels…One of the best ways to slow population growth is to educate girls through secondary school. The difference between a woman with no years of schooling and with 12 years of schooling is almost four to five children per woman.”

How can higher education embrace equity?

There is no shortage of women enrolled in postsecondary degree programs. In fact, globally women account for 54% of college graduates and in the U.S. women slightly outnumber men in holding degrees, but among younger generations, 10% more women hold degrees than men. However, both globally and in the U.S., men are more likely than women to earn degrees associated with high income jobs such as information sciences, computer sciences, and engineering. In addition, men continue to dominate higher status and higher paying jobs in higher education, and women in the same jobs as men in higher education still earn less than men. While women attending college are less likely to be sexually assaulted than those not attending college, over 25% of undergraduate women and nearly 10% of graduate women experience rape or assault, and sexual violence is the most common crime reported on campuses. There are additional inequities associated with male and female sports, student evaluations of male and female instructors, and the child-care burden that is more likely to fall on female parents who are faculty, staff, and students than male parents with those same roles.

In sum, there are a variety of ways higher education can embrace equity so that female students, staff, and faculty can transform their lives and the lives of their family for the better. While we’ve seen how the ‘rising tide of capitalism’ does not lift all boats, the evidence points to how educational and financial equity for women is the true tide that can lift all families.

Read Teaching, Learning, Equity and Change