Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Reflections on the Current Status of Women in American Higher Education

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Reflections on the Current Status of Women in American Higher Education

Article excerpt


Since World War II, American women have gained much greater access to higher education, with women now 56% of undergraduates, and approximately half of medical and law school students, as well as attaining 49% of PhD's. Despite their greater representation, women pursuing professional careers still experience considerable stress. At the institutional level, career opportunities remain unequal, with men still earning better pay at all ranks and having greater access to resources, as well as continuing to predominate as senior faculty. Fewer women gain tenured positions and promotions than in the 1970's, as the enforcement of Affirmative Action policies has slackened, and increasing numbers of courses are taught by contingent faculty. At the personal level, many women feel ambivalent about working when they have young children, and there are many potential conflicts if dual careers are involved, especially if there are heavy training-incurred debts, and if jobs entail difficult commutes or no work for one partner. We will review data on faculty rank and salary over the years, and discuss the implications of shifts in the academic environment as they interact with changing aspects of personal relationships and social expectations.


In recent decades, the number of women enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs in the United States has dramatically increased. Women obtained 19% of undergraduate degrees at the beginning of the 20th Century. By 1984, 49% of college degrees were earned by women, some of them "returning" students, older than the traditional 18-22 year old cohort. By 2001, more than 50% of undergraduates were women, and more recent figures go as high as 56% (Yoder, 2003).

In 1930, 2% of American lawyers and judges were women. Until 1950, Harvard Law School did not accept women as students, and there were no women on the tenured faculty until more than twenty years later (Kay, 2004). By 1989, the number of female law students had risen to 22%, and law school student bodies now typically include as many women as men. At the University of California-Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, 64% of the students in 2000 were women (West et al, 2005). In 1972, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a Professor at Columbia Law School, she was one of only twenty women with that status in the entire country (Kay, 2004). While the number of tenured faculty women had no way to go but up, progress has been slow. Similarly, medical schools now enroll approximately 50% women, in contrast to fewer than 10% fifty years ago. However, a study of faculty at medical schools around the country showed that women are still under-represented in tenured ranks and in senior administration, and that their promotion rates and salaries lag far behind their male peers (Ash et al, 2004).

Students have changed, not only in terms of gender representation, but also in terms of such factors as race, ethnicity and social class. The March/April 2005 issue of Academe, the journal of national AAUP, states that current students are more likely than their parents to need to work at least part-time to pay for tuition and other costs, and cites the results of an annual survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA to the effect that 53% of first year women and 40% of entering men need to get jobs to help pay for their education (p. 4). The effect of work status on retention and graduation rates, as well as on the choice of majors and the amount of out of class reading and thinking is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is clear that prior distinctions between full-time, straight out of high school day students and older, working evening students, has become blurred, just as the number of people graduating within four years of admission to college has gotten smaller. While the student body has become increasingly diverse, the faculty has remained relatively homogeneous (Balliet et al, 2005; West et al, 2005). …

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