Higher ed can help close the gender gap

Covid-19 worsened the gender gap.

The Covid-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on gender inequities faced by women. The exodus of 2.4 million women from the workforce in 2020 — 600,000 more than men — underscored the realities of balancing disproportionate childcare and eldercare responsibilities, coupled with a lack of workplace flexibility and a tougher road towards upward mobility. The result is a widening gender gap that stands to set gender parity progress back by generations.  

Even before the pandemic, women saw fewer promotions than men, with a marked disparity in representation across C-suite and executive roles. Conversely, women — particularly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women — face the highest pay disparities and are overrepresented in frontline roles and industries hardest-hit by the pandemic. Without resources like education benefits that make debt-free college accessible, women in frontline roles face seemingly insurmountable hurdles to achieve upward career mobility.

Access to skills conducive to advancement is critical in addressing the gender gap.

Rebuilding the workforce will only be sustainable through a conscious effort to support working women to enter and thrive across roles and fields. Implementing education benefits for working women can be instrumental in the process of reclaiming and advancing progress made in the decades leading up to 2020

Increased access to education can unlock career opportunities for working women. 

Postsecondary educational attainment has an undeniable link with higher pay. More major employers are realizing that underwriting tuition costs for employees improves retention and helps close skills gaps while making access to opportunity more equitable. When employees use their education benefits to enroll in programs that prioritize flexibility for working adults, they can earn degrees and credentials that stand to help them advance their careers. 

While education benefits alone will not resolve gender inequity, they can act as an important step in providing women with the opportunity to advance with greater alacrity: when education parity between men and women is reached, the delta in promotion rates narrows from 13% to 5%

The graphic below shows a representation of how education benefits can create a pathway for women to move forward in their careers.

Education unlocks opportunity.

Academic institutions stand to play a pivotal role in dismantling stigma and preparing women for success. 

In a recent study, Guild found that the percentage of women who apply to programs that will prepare them for a given field is approximately equal to the current percentage of women in that field. For example, women make up about 25% of the workforce in computer and mathematical fields, and women comprise about 27% of the working adult students who are using their education benefit to enroll in programs in those fields. This trend reveals an opportunity for academic institutions to be intentional and direct in interventions that help women students see themselves in fields and roles where a lack of representation is commonplace.  

Higher education continues to be one of the only proven pathways to upward career mobility. As such, the vast majority of people in positions of power — positions to instigate change — have passed through the higher education system. This provides a unique opportunity for institutions to unravel some of the gender biases that continue to inhibit progress. A few strategies that institutions can deploy to help make the system more equitable include:

1. Representation across faculty, university leadership, and within course content: Intersectional population parity is a long-term strategy, and must be reflected in gender-conscious curriculum design. 

2. Support through mentorship and coaching: Positive, culturally-competent support that helps women proactively address barriers to advancement can foster stronger student outcomes.

3. Community building: Community and shared learning events and safe spaces can both foster a sense of belonging and create networking opportunities.

4. Clear connection between skills gained and career competencies: Equipping students with the ability to see how their skills translate across roles and industries can empower women to consider the breadth of career opportunities available to them.

5. Flexible education pathways: Innovative approaches beyond asynchronous learning opportunities, such as stackable credentials and credit for prior learning, create space to accommodate the multiple responsibilities working adult women manage while helping them accelerate their degree pathways through acknowledging competencies students have already mastered.

When academic institutions strive to show more women thriving in these roles through relevant case students, alumni speakers, positive mentors, or even just enumerating the skills and competencies generally associated with success, more women may be able to picture themselves on this path – one with high median earnings and large potential for upward mobility.

Education benefits have the capability to have a strong impact on women’s access to career opportunities and the ability to move up the job ladder. Higher education has enormous agency in helping to make this change happen. 

Hear a student’s perspective on access and affordability.

Guild student Perla Villalobos shares how her education benefits gave her the opportunity to go back to school on her own terms, increase her mobility, and improve her quality of life.

Ready to learn more about how education benefits can help address discrepancies in pay and representation for women?

Download the full white paper, Stepping Up: How Education Access Can Help Bridge the Gender Gap for Working Adults to get started. 

Is your institution committed to supporting success for working adult learners? Talk to our team to learn more about joining Guild’s Learning Marketplace.

Written by Sophie Baye