‘The Rise of Women in Higher Education’

Author discusses theories about the progress made by women and the factors that hold them back.

February 25, 2020
 

Gary A. Berg's new book, The Rise of Women in Higher Education: How, Why and What's Next (Rowman & Littlefield), covers the dramatic gains made by women in higher education and the areas where they have not achieved equity.

Berg, a former associate vice president at California State University Channel Islands, responded to questions about the book via email.

Q: Your book seems a reminder of the incredible progress women have made in higher education, and of the areas where progress has been more limited. Let's start with the progress that has taken place. What do you see as particularly significant?

A: The premise of my book is that the most important change in higher education in recent history is the increase of women leaders, faculty and students. I first became interested in the topic through observing the encouraging impact of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and women’s athletics on campus cultures.

The changes are broad and international. At the turn of the 21st century, women worldwide finally surpassed men in higher education participation. The forces behind this historical transformation internationally reflect declining birth rates and important social-political changes, echoing what occurred in America at the beginning of the 20th century, when women overcame almost complete restriction from postsecondary education. The growth in female faculty members, and in doctoral programs, is a crucial trend because of the implication for the future. The change in the college environment from a male domain too often hostile to women to one now evolving into a welcoming place encouraging personal and professional growth for young female students, is far from perfect but cause for acknowledgment.

Q: Now let's talk about the obstacles. Where are women held back?

A: The legacy of gendered majors and academic disciplines has a long history that limited women primarily to classroom teacher and nursing professions. Female students are still not as present in STEM majors, especially economically lucrative fields such as engineering. Women typically pursue majors leading to lower-paying occupations and end up with larger college debt on average than men after graduation.

Women faculty tend to be disproportionately employed in community colleges and less prestigious four-year institutions, and are paid approximately 80 percent of what men receive (a figure that is remarkably constant internationally). While there are more females in university leadership than in the past, the percentage is still lower, especially at research institutions.

Q: How important has Title IX been (both in athletics and outside it)?

A: Title IX had an immediate impact on women’s athletics participation and funding. The positive influence on individual students and overall campus life has been immense. While it is hard to quantify the effect of positive change on the overall university, combined with broader social changes, it is clear that college campuses are different today partly because of Title IX.

Although women athletes over all shine academically (unlike male athletes), and benefit from other clear advantages of participation in team sports, financial support for women’s athletics is still unequal, especially when looking at differences in compensation rates for coaches.

Q: Why are women less likely to get presidencies, particularly of research universities?

A: Many of the elite institutions in the past were resistant to admitting women students, or did so only through linked coordinate colleges, so it is no surprise that they would have less diverse leadership. In some cases, the traditions at universities surrounding doctoral programs, tenure and promotion work against encouraging rapid change in leadership gender, especially at research universities. In addition to creating an open pipeline to top positions, institutions need to more actively encourage and develop women leaders. Over time, one would expect to see college presidencies more appropriately reflect the ever more diverse student population.

Q: In five to 10 years, do you think we'll see more progress, or is progress slowing down?

A: The story of how women came to higher learning is one of self-education outside inaccessible colleges. Despite heavy opposition by men and rigid socio-political structures, women educated themselves by every means available, becoming especially skillful in writing and reading. This same learning activism will continue with or without support from others globally. I am hopeful that obstacles will become increasingly clear and unacceptable. The leadership and compensation inequality issues are already much discussed within and outside universities. The gendered major problem is more difficult and likely to take some time to change, partly because of the larger industrial and social forces out of the academy’s direct control. In terms of the increasing popularity of women’s sports, their historical links to academic departments with a focus on human development offer a model men’s sports should emulate going forward.

Over all, colleges are viewing inequity in a more nuanced manner with a better understanding of the complex nature of individual student identity beyond single demographic categories. Unlike the retrenchment that was seen in the early 20th century, when women entered universities in large numbers, we have passed a tipping point and will not turn back. Universities with empowered female students, faculty and leadership will more and more be centers for positive change in the world.

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