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Women Overrepresent the College Population, Yet Underrepresent the CEO Population. Why?

College tuition and women attending college have one thing in common. They are both rising! These trends beg the question, is college worth it for women? Women currently make up more than half of the college population. Tuition has reached an all time high, with student loan debt averaging $29,400 per student upon graduation.

In an age where fewer woman run big companies than men named John, it is natural to wonder about the value of a college education for women. Why are women overrepresented in the college population, yet underrepresented in the CEO population?

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Photo courtesy of @feministapparel Instagram account

There are several potential reasons for this misalignment. The most prominent cause for this issue stems from the social construction of gender, the socialization into gender roles, and hegemonic gender ideologies.

Gender is constructed by our social expectations and gender norms. We create and re-create gender everyday through our behaviors and interactions. We ascribe characteristics to what it means to be male and female, and we socialize children from day one to perform these roles.

Traditionally, men and boys are taught to be strong, aggressive, and curious. Women and girls are taught to be passive, agreeable, kind, and family-oriented. We are socialized through our parents, family, school, and media (just to name a few). Feminine characteristics are often contradictory to qualities deemed appropriate in the workplace. Thus, the social construction of gender often prohibits women from getting ahead in the workplace, despite the acquisition of a college degree.

First, it is important to note that women and men often have different career aspirations. While this may seem natural to the naked eye, women and men are taught to have differing preferences when it comes to careers. This pattern is referred to as occupational segregation.

Sparknotes sums this up perfectly:

“If cultural expectations dictate that girls and more compassionate and nurturing than boys, then parents, teachers, and counselors will steer them toward fields that require patience and concern for other people, such as nursing, social work, or elementary school teaching. Though a girl who expresses a desire to become a nuclear engineer would probably no longer be explicitly discouraged, a boy with a similar goal would probably encounter more encouragement.”

What are the implications of this, you ask?

Sparknotes explains:

“Women who work in traditionally male occupations often hit a glass ceiling, an invisible barrier that keeps women from reaching executive positions. Men who work in traditionally female occupations, such as nursing, social work, or elementary school teaching, are often viewed as more qualified than women. These men often benefit from a glass escalator; they are paid more and promoted more quickly than their female counterparts.”

Why Most Women Will Never Become CEO:

In an article from TIME Magazine, Gene Marks, a male, explains that women have a more difficult time becoming CEO for three major reasons.

1. Sexism in the Workplace

Marks, a male, recalls multiple instances where attractive female staffers left the room and a few men commented on her “hotness.” Marks explains that, “words, thoughts, and important points are missed because of a new perfume or a low cut blouse.” Sexism creates a workplace atmosphere were attractive women are not taken seriously, and even worse, where women who are deemed unattractive are often ignored – for the opposite reason.

2. Looks in the Workplace

Sure, a woman can have a degree from the best PhD program around, but what matters more when she enters the interview, her educational attainment, or her appearance? Unfortunately, a woman’s appearance plays a huge role in the way that she is perceived. A female’s appearance is often weighted much more heavily than that of a male, regardless of educational attainment.

3. Work/Life Balance

Women face stronger pressures to care for her family and home (remember, this is taught and learned!)

Although it is increasingly common for families to have two working parents, women are expected to provide the majority of the childcare and housekeeping duties. This is often referred to as the second shift. Thus, even when a woman possesses a college degree, the idea that she may need to take a maternity leave or time off if children get sick or injured, often prevents women from attaining high status positions (this is often deemed, the Mommy Track). Even if women do not have plans to get married or have a child she may face this barrier! – this affects all women.

Pressures on Women:

There are multiple societal pressures on women to have her dream job, marry her dream man, provide her children with their dream lifestyle, and to balance it all flawlessly. This creates the rhetoric that women can and should do it all.

An article from Parents Magazine, 10 Ways Moms can Balance Work and Family, tells moms to…

“Avoid starting the day on a frazzled note by getting organized the night before. Pack the kids’ lunches, lay out their clothes (plus your own) and have everyone shower.”

“Create and Organize a Family Calendar”

…Where is the other parent? If this article is talking about single moms, they should have specified.

These expectations often create an overwhelming feeling of guilt for working mothers.

Meredith Hale confesses her worries in a Washington Post Article,

“Are my needs to keep up my resume and my identity worth the high expense of childcare? Am I robbing my children of the benefits of a stay-at-home mom for no real reason, other than my personal anxieties and ego?”

A Double-Bind for Working Mothers

Mothers face pressures to be the ideal mother and to be the ideal worker (which is based on masculine standards i.e. no familial responsibilities).

If workplaces are inflexible to familial needs, women are often forced to “opt out” of their careers to take of their children. Disclaimer: I do not know what it is like to have a baby. I am sure that many women want to stay home and soak up those precious moments with their children. However, what I do understand are the societal pressures that often force women into making this decision.

When women do leave their work, they often blame themselves for “failing to have it all” rather than on structural constraints. When women do quit, they cite familial obligations as the reason, not their dissatisfaction with workplace procedures.

By adopting the socially desirable explanation of “family,” women contribute to the larger misunderstanding of their decision – that becoming a stay at home mother is entirely a choice.

Where do we go from here?

It is important to understand that these patterns are entirely created and recreated through our social interactions. Through altering the rhetoric that girls and boys have differential characteristics from day one, we can put an end to this cycle.

By raising our children with egalitarian gender ideologies, we can create a more equal society. It is vital that we recognize this dilemma and take actions (big or small) in our own lives to combat this issue. It all starts with us – we are in control of the future.

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