"United Around High Human Values"

Dr. Nelly Stromquist | 

The University of Maryland | 

Professor, Int’l Education Policy | 

Drastic transformations in the higher education landscape are underway throughout the world.

In today’s promised “knowledge society,” higher education is an essential path to professional and managerial positions, which—for the most part—pay higher salaries than other jobs in the marketplace.

All over the world, participation in higher education has been increasing expanding from 13 million in 1960 to 82 million in 1995.[1] Over the past decade alone, the number of people with higher education has increased by 77%.[2]


In this expansion, the enrollment of women in post-secondary education has grown almost twice as fast as that of men.[3] Today, women represent the majority of those enrolled at that level in North America, Western Europe, Central/Eastern Europe, and Latin America/Caribbean.They have achieved parity with men in the Arab States and East Asia/Pacific.However, they exhibit low participation rates in sub-Saharan Africa and South/West Asia.[4]

Regional statistics do not disaggregate enrollment by social class.But we know it is still the case that economic conditions operate to create major obstacles to educational participation, especially at higher levels.Women from upper social classes are benefiting more than those from low-income families.For instance, in the U.S. more women than men graduate from college among families in the top 25% of the earning distribution; in contrast, there is almost no women’s advantage among the poorest families.[5]

Sociologist Shavit and his colleagues observe that as primary and secondary education expand, inequalities in education are pushed to higher levels of education.[6]This inequality often emerges in the form of quality rather than quantity.Women still encounter differences in the kinds of institutions they attend.In Japan 90% of the enrollment in community colleges (tanki daigaku)—institutions that offer non-technical courses in home economics, education, and the communities—is female.[7] In the U.S., the proportion of women in community colleges is also higher than in the universities.In Israel women are more numerous in the colleges than in the universities.[8]However, once women are admitted to higher education settings, they tend to surpass men in grades, evaluations, and degree completion.[9]

This brief article seeks to shed some light on the reasons for women’s increased presence in post-secondary education and the economic and social returns they derive.The intent is to address these issues from a global perspective but since data is more abundant for the U.S., most arguments are made based on U.S. evidence.

Reasons for women’s greater presence in post-secondary education

Several explanations have been brought forward for the recent overrepresentation of women in post-secondary education.Their increase is not the result of affirmative action policies expressed in quota systems since such legislation in favor of women has been limited, and visible mostly in a handful of African countries.

Demographic reasons, such as delaying the age for marrying and having children (thanks to the increased use of contraceptives), have been invoked.Sociological reasons such as a decline of discrimination in the labor market, greater possibilities for balancing family and professional life, and less discrimination in providing both sons and daughters access to education are also at work.Economic explanations are valid as well: post-secondary education has become the main level for access to positive social mobility in the U.S.And even at that level the competition is high as 28% of the adult population over 25 years now has a bachelor’s degree or above.[10] Today, women recognize they need more education to compete with men for similar salaries or, as seems to be the case in Europe, there are increasing rates of return for women’s higher education.[11] In countries such as Iran, despite the scarce employment opportunities for them, women realize that higher education enhancesaspirations and expectations regarding their civil, political, and economic citizenship.[12]

Education factors are also at work:girls have been attaining higher scores in reading, comparable scores in math, and slightly lower scores than boys in science in all three PISA test administrations.Naturally, girls’ academic achievement nurtures aspirations for higher education.Finally, ideological factors also come into play.Changing attitudes and values regarding the roles and aspirations of women, in part due to feminist movements in the 1960s and 1970s, have been considerable.The wide dissemination of democratic norms—a social revolution facilitated by the information and communication technologies as well as travel—is conveying the notion that women should strive for autonomous and egalitarian lives.

A recent concern in the U.S. and other industrialized countries (and likely to spread to other countries) addresses the growing presence of women to the detriment of men in higher education.Explanations linked to this concern essentially blame the teacher by asserting that boys get low grades because teachers (most of whom are female at the primary level) use grades to reward girls for good behavior in class.This unfair behavior in turn is supposed to discourage boys who then engage less in their studies.[13]An additional reason has been identified as boys’ lack of information about college.In response to these explanations, several questions can be raised:Why do female teachers reward girls only now and not since the 1850s, when women were already a majority of teachers in primary schools?Why do we assume that teachers’ preference for good behavior is of such magnitude that it outweighs their professional assessment of student learning?Statistics disaggregated by social class indicate that the young men who are not going to college are those from low-income families.So why then do such preferences by female teachers’ not seem to affect wealthier young men?If boys lack information about going to college, are we now assuming that school counselors also discriminate against boys?Furthermore, the assertion of teacher bias fully contradicts the vast research literature that identifies teaching as the strongest determinant of student achievement for both boys and girls.[14] If the situation of women from the perspective of parity is very good on average, other dimensions of higher education remain problematic.Three such dimensions are:the remuneration to women from their higher education credentials, their distribution in fields of study, and the positions they fill in academic settings.

Economic return to educational investment

Women’s over-representation in post-secondary education does not necessarily translate into proportional salaries or access to leadership and decision-making roles.Data on salaries for men and women for different levels of education exist only for developed countries.In the case of the U.S., women receive lower salaries than men at all levels of education, as seen in Table 1 (appendix).In part this is due to women’s predominance in low-wage fields, as they comprise 87% of those in the childcare industry and 86% of those in the health aide industries.[15]But inequalities in gender pay can be found within the same occupations and positions at higher levels of education.

Table 1 shows that women face salary gaps at all levels of education. For multiple reasons, to earn salaries similar to those of men, women must have at least two more years of education than men.Higher education certainly helps women; nonetheless, women with some college education earn less than a man with a high school diploma, women with a bachelor’s degree earn almost as much as a man with an associate degree, and women with a master’s or more earn the same as men with a bachelor’s degree.

The college major has an important role in the gender wage gap, e.g., engineering vs. education.But it is also the case that within similar professions, women earn less than men.For instance, women today comprise 40% of all full-time managers, but their median salary is 73% of male managers.[16]Because many social factors affect men and women differentially, in the end women pay an education premium to compete equally with men in terms of salaries.Sociologist W.R. Connell refers to men’s advantage over women as the “patriarchal dividend.”The fact women need more years of education to compete for similar salaries as those of men could conversely be called the “patriarchal penalty.”

Over time, the wage gender gap has been decreasing.In 1979 the average woman earned $0.62 cents for every dollar the average man earned; by 2010, she earned $0.80 cents compared to her male counterpart.[17] Some occupations have become more female-dominated than in the past.In 1980, women represented 75% of primary school teachers and 68% of social workers; by 2012, they were 80% of primary school teachers and 80% of social workers.[18]

The gendered nature of career choices

Do women enter all fields of study in equal numbers?What accounts for the “choices” women make?There continues to be a noticeable occupational clustering along gender lines.Taking again the U.S. as a point of reference, 75% of master’s degrees awarded to women are in five fields:education, business, health (often nursing), public administration, and psychology.Women are still under-represented in the fields with the greatest economic rewards in an increasingly technological society.In 2008, women represented 22% of all doctorates in engineering and 27% of those in math and computer sciences.[19]Social mobility is a dynamic process, but it is usually played out in selection of field of study and in employment; rarely do women transgress social norms in the domestic sphere or those regarding motherhood. What this suggests that what we take as field of study “choices” are in fact considerably shaped by social norms, expectations, and constraints.

In many countries, women’s access to higher education has improved yet remains characterized by their concentration in the humanities and social sciences and in their concomitant under-representation in the natural sciences, engineering, and computer sciences.Further, women account only for 29% of the world’s researchers.[20]

Data from international comparisons reveal progress in female achievement over time.In OECD countries, according to PISA findings, adolescent girls perform significantly better than boys in reading while boys perform better than girls in math, although the differences in this latter subject are small.Gender differences in the selection of mathematics and computer science in higher education, however, remain high.Clearly, it is not levels of academic competence that are shaping women’s field of study, and thus career, choices.Moreover, women tend not to like two fields central to their empowerment:economics and political science.In the U.S., men are three times more likely than women to major in economics[21]; slightly more men than women get degrees in political science but only one-fourth of the full-time faculty in this discipline are women.[22] In society at large, women appear to be kept at a distance from political knowledge and formal political representation.

Low representation of women in academic and administrative positions

The teaching force at the primary and secondary school levels comprises many women; not so at the university level. While women have been making notable inroads into the university as students, their progress in academic positions has been slow.Across the world, despite the increased number of women graduates, more men than women occupy academic positions.In the U.S. more men than women enjoy tenure and tenure-track positions while women are over-represented in non-tenure positions.[23]Women comprise about one-third of the full professors—a figure that has been slowly improving across the years—and the majority of instructors and lecturers, positions that offer very limited prospects for promotion and—for those with only part-time employment— high job instability with no health or pension benefits.

Women earn less than men at each of the professorial ranks irrespective of institutional category (i.e., whose highest degree-granting level is doctoral, master’s, baccalaureate, or associate) as seen in Table 2 (appendix).Combining all rankings and types of institutions, the gender gap is 13 percentage points.[24] The situation seems to be improving slowly as a 9% gender gap in salaries has been detected among recently hired faculty members at research-intensive universities.[25]

For over a decade, governments worldwide have declared it a priority “to define and implement policies to eliminate all gender stereotyping in higher education.”[26]In countries with a relatively young higher education system, as is the case of Ethiopia, women represent a minority and face serious adjustment problems, ranging from lack of academic and counseling support to threatening sexual environments, which result in enormous attrition rates.[27] Similar unsafe climates have been reported in several other African countries, including Nigeria and South Africa.Findings from Chinese universities report very traditional gender cultures, characterized by marked stereotypes of women’s and men’s capacities.[28] Research conducted in the Arab Gulf countries indicates how difficult it is to change gender norms, even by the university-educated women themselves.Findlow has detected considerable dissonance as many such women endorse gender transformative ideas while at the same time working within the system; i.e., acquiescing to a reality highly dominated by male power.[29] These educated women are thereby able to gain socioeconomic capital by joining the hegemonic group.They do not contest patriarchy; they function within its norms and boundaries, not contesting, for instance, family law nor engaging in collective action in their societies.

A few policies have been in place to create a more gender-friendly space in post-secondary institutions.European countries lead the way in this respect by offering reasonable paid parental leaves, childcare facilities, and gender training of faculty members and administrative personnel.A positive example comes from Germany, which has institutionalized equity plans, introduced gender studies in all its universities, and created the position of gender equity coordinator.In practice, however, this position tends to be occupied by a graduate student who then has little weight in decision-making.The financing of public universities depends not only on advancement in research and teaching but also on implementing measures to ensure gender equity.[30]

In contrast, in the U.S. such measures are very modest.Parental paid leaves are given in only one-third of universities, and mostly only to mothers.In a study of a major research-intensive university, while 72% of the mothers took parental leave, 82% of the fathers did not, mostly for fear of social stigma and negative repercussions such as delayed promotion.[31]Some fields, particularly those in science, engineering, and math are described as having “child-free” department cultures.Childcare remains a major obstacle to women in the academy (as well as in other occupations); some estimate that childcare costs presently exceed the annual median cost of housing rent in 24 states.[32]


There is widespread belief that education empowers women, a discourse present not only in the Millennium Development Goals and Post-2015 plans,[33]but also in the arguments endorsed by more advanced countries.The evidence I have presented indicates women are certainly better off with higher levels than lower levels of education but the equation of this with empowerment—were this term to be defined as autonomy in decision-making—shows that this is not the case.We are all bound by the cultural norms in which live, and women themselves continue to uphold the trappings and constraints of femininity and care-giving despite having strong academic credentials.The point here is not to blame women but rather to highlight that education alone cannot shift society towards new structural configurations.

It is important to note that the statistics showing over-representation of women in higher education are not necessarily the results of affirmative action in their favor since such policies exist in a handful of countries, nor do they reflect comprehensive educational and social progress.Rather, these statistics are in large part a reflection of a wider range of alternatives in the labor force for males or structural challenges that make men less willing to see the need to acquire post-secondary education credentials.

What we are witnessing today is the contradictory and yet cumulative impact of multiple disadvantages.A comprehensive understanding of the complex interaction of a combination of forces is imperative to gain an accurate analysis of certain social problems.[34] Gender is certainly such a problem.

Will the predominance of women in tertiary education continue?Will women eventually break the stagnant enrollment patterns in some of the STEM fields?Have they already touched a ceiling based on the domestic division of labor that is so difficult to modify?As more women become educated, will they become complaisant about their gains or will they make stronger claims for equality?




[1] UNESCO. 1998 (9 October).Framework for Priority Action for Change and Development in Higher Education. Paris:UNESCO.

[2] OECD.2010. Education at a Glance.Paris:OECD.

[3] UIS. 2010. Global Education Digest 2010. Comparing Education Statistics Across the World. Montreal:UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

[4] ibid

[5] Coontz, S.2012 (September 29).The Myth of Male Decline.The New York Times Sunday Review.

[6] Shavit, Y., Arum, R., & Gamoran, A. with Gila Menahem (eds.).2007.Stratification in Higher Education.A Comparative Study.Stanford:Stanford University Press.

[7] ibid

[8] Vincent-Lancrin, S.2008.The reversal of gender inequalities in higher education:an on-going trend.Paris:OECD, draft document.

[9] UIS. 2010. Global Education Digest 2010. Comparing Education Statistics Across the World. Montreal:UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

[10] U.S. Census Bureau.2012. Educational Attainment in the United States.Population Characteristics.Washington, D.C.:U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce.

[11] Vincent-Lancrin, S.2008.The reversal of gender inequalities in higher education:an on-going trend.Paris:OECD, draft document.

[12] Rezai-Rashti, G. & Moghadam, V. 2011. Women and higher education in Iran: What are the implications for employment and the “marriage market”?International Review of Education, 57: 419-441.

[13] Diprete, T. & Buchmann, C.2013.The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools. New York:Russell Sage Foundation.

[14] For a wide list of such findings, see: Schwille, J. & Demb, M., in collaboration with Jane Schubert.2007.Global perspectives on teacher learning:improving policy and practice.Paris:UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning.

[15] Perry, J. & David, E.G. 2011. American women and gender pay gap:A changing demographic or the same old song.Advancing Women in Leadership, 31: 153-159.

[16] Coontz, S.2012 (September 29).The Myth of Male Decline.The New York Times Sunday Review.

[17] U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Labor Statistics.2011.Women in the Labor Force:A Databook. Washington, D.C.:U.S. Department of Labor and US Labor Statistics.

[18] Coontz, S.2012 (September 29).The Myth of Male Decline.The New York Times Sunday Review.

[19] AAUP.2011.2009-2010 Report on the Economic Status of the Profession.Washington, D.C:American Association of University Professors.

[20] UIS. 2010. Global Education Digest 2010. Comparing Education Statistics Across the World. Montreal:UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

[21] Dynan, K. & Rouse, C.1995 (October).The Underrepresentation of Women in Economics:A Study of the Undergraduate Economics Students. Working Paper 5299.Washington, D.C.:National Bureau of Economic Research.

[22] APSA. 2004 (11-15 March).Women’s Advancement in Political Science:A Report of the APSA Workshop on the Advancement of women in Academic Political Science in the US.Washington: American Political Science Association.

[23] AAUP.2011.2009-2010 Report on the Economic Status of the Profession.Washington, D.C:American Association of University Professors.

[24] AAUP.2012.A Very Slow Recovery:The Annual Report of the Committee on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2011-12.Washington, D.C.:American Association of University Professors.

[25] (Porter et al., 2008).

[26] UNESCO.1998 (9 October).Framework for Priority Action for Change and Development in Higher Education. Paris:UNESCO.

[27] Semela, T. 2006.Higher Education Expansion and the Gender Question in Ethiopia:A Case Study of Women in a Public University.Proceedings of the Conference on the Future of Higher Education in Ethiopia, 3: 63-86.

[28] Liu, B. & Li, Y. 2010.Opportunities and barriers:Gendered reality in Chinese higher education. Frontiers of Education in China, 5(2): 197-221.

[29] Findlow, S. 2013.Higher education and feminism in the Arab Gulf. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34(1):112-131.

[30] Zapata, M.2000. La equidad degénero en las universidades alemanas.In A. Mingo (ed.), Desasosiegos.Relaciones de género en la educación.Mexico:Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, pp. 109-150.

[31] Lundquist, J. & Misra, J. 2013.Parental Leave Usage by Fathers and Mothers at an American University. Fathering.

[32] Durno, C. 2013.“I can’t afford to be a working mom.”Parenting, 271, p. 82.

[33] e.g., Bates-Eamer, N., Carin, B., Lee M.H., Kim W., with M. Kapila. 2012.Post-2015 Development Agenda:Goals, Targets and Indicators.Special Report.Ontario:The Center for International Governance Innovation and the Korean Development Institute.

[34] Stiglitz, J., Sen, A., & Fitoussi, J-P. 2009.The measurement of economic performance and social progress revisited.Document de travail de l’OFCE No. 2009-13.Paris: OFCE.

Professor, International Education Policy, HESI

Last modified: July 12, 2023