The discussion of gender disparities in the workplace has at long last reached the mainstream, hopefully indicating a shift toward more progressive hiring policies. But the U.S. cannot truly achieve professional equality if it does not address underlying causes for these gaps.
A recent Glassdoor study found that men’s and women’s career paths diverge as early as their undergraduate studies, when they self-select into different majors. Male students gravitate toward technical fields such as engineering and computer science, while their female peers tend toward nursing, social work, and healthcare administration.
The study rightly points out that one’s major does not necessarily dictate his or her career. However, the skills cultivated in a particular discipline — such as computer programming or financial analysis — determine which paths are available to which graduates. Someone who has an academic background in these areas is likely to land a job with higher pay, and therefore earn more throughout her career, than someone whose training emphasized “soft” skills.
A Guiding Hand
Given the long-term implications of students’ majors, it’s critical that students have access to a range of mentors and career counselors who can help them choose the right fields. Many young men and women begin their undergraduate careers with some notions of what majors they’ll choose. But they often don’t have real-world experience or exposure in these fields, which is why mentors are so crucial. These mentors can explain the realities of the profession to students, answer their questions, and serve as gateways to internships and full-time positions.
Professors who recognize certain aptitudes in their students should nurture those traits and encourage students to pursue their interests. That kind of support could make the difference for a woman who would like to go into computer science but has been steered away from it all her life. Not only might she be more fulfilled in a computer science career, but she also may vastly increase her earning potential and future opportunities.
Research shows that students who have mentors perform better academically, achieve higher graduation rates, and are more likely to attend graduate and professional schools. We know that these personal connections between students and faculty members are vital to young people’s success because individual merit is not enough to propel them forward. In university and in the workplace, the highest achievers are not simply the brightest or most talented. They’re often guided by knowledgeable, well-positioned individuals who can facilitate key connections.
Unfortunately, we also know that students don’t have equal access to mentors. Factors such as race, class, and gender often determine which young people find mentors and which are left to fend for themselves. Wealthy white male students tend to attract the most support because of their perceived social capital. Therefore, they enjoy the all-important educational, emotional, and professional support needed to rise high in one’s career. Everyone else — students disadvantaged by race, income, gender, and other stigmatized social markers — possess less social capital. It follows that they also find it more difficult to approach and secure mentors than their white male peers.
When I moved to the U.S. at 19, fleeing an arranged marriage in India, I believed that women in this country enjoy unprecedented freedoms. Yet I have found throughout my career that they, too, are stifled by their cultures. I recall being in a meeting once in which a male leader was personally degrading one of the women on his team. Finding this unacceptable, I spoke up in her defense and was promptly told that I was being hostile. A few minutes later, another man in the room made a similar point and was praised for his assertiveness.
Women in the U.S. face similar situations every day, and I believe this makes them unique assets to any organization. Combating sexism and stereotypes forces you to develop a particular kind of grit that sets women leaders apart. Of course, we need to get women into those positions to begin with, and that is up to college professors and administrators. By identifying and nurturing talented students, regardless of background, faculties can ensure that all young people have fair chances at professional success and financial stability.
Finally Closing the Gap
As automation fundamentally alters the American workforce, the best jobs will increasingly be found in STEM fields. However, the World Economic Forum found that unless the gender gap in these industries rapidly closes, women will be systematically excluded from the top professions. But a change in mentality could drive changes in these longstanding workforce trends.
In addition to improving existing cultures for women who work in STEM fields, colleges and universities should invest in programs that encourage women to pursue tech careers. Young women especially tend to underestimate themselves, making it all the more likely that they will shy away from lucrative career paths. Universities have a responsibility to promote talented individuals and provide support for young women who show a gift for the sciences or leadership.
Every generation benefits from those that came before it. My mother was a law student when she married in rural India, and her career was set aside so she could take on the role of caretaker for our family. As a result, she insisted that my siblings and I study hard and pursue our careers — do all the things she never had the chance to do.
I believe that it is our duty to create environments in which the women of tomorrow feel free to pursue their dreams, innovate alongside their male peers, and become the leaders they know themselves to be.