How Higher Education Contributes to Occupational Segregation by Gender in the United States

A new report from the Center on Poverty and Inequality at the Georgetown University Law Center examines the role postsecondary education plays in perpetuating occupational segregation by gender.

Occupational segregation harms workers and the economy, according to the report. Occupational segregation is caused and exacerbated by many factors, including: the history and legacy of legal racial- and gender-based exclusion, employers’ discriminatory practices, employers’ racial and gender biases based on stereotypes tied to occupational “fit,” differential exposure to career paths, unequal access to professional networks and career pathways, and inequitable access to quality education and educational attainment across one’s lifespan.

Some key findings from the quantitative analysis of data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) Longitudinal Study include:

●  Students enter postsecondary institutions already segregated across fields of study by gender. For example, about 6 percent of male students entering college intend to major in computer science, compared to 1 percent of women. Some 12 percent of entering male students plan to major in engineering compared to 2 percent of entering women students. In contrast, 17 percent of entering women students planned to major in healthcare fields compared to 6 percent of men.

●  Our postsecondary system does little to interrupt this initial segregation, and graduates remain segregated across fields of study by gender.

●  Students leaving their first-intended field of study or exiting postsecondary education altogether exacerbates field of study segregation. In 2017, only 22 percent of women students, who originally declared a computer sciences field of study graduated with a computer sciences degree. In contrast, nearly 27 percent of male students whose original field of study was computer sciences graduated with a computer sciences degree. In contrast, only 9 percent of men who entered college intending to major in a health care field earned a bachelor’s degree in the field within six years, compared to 23 percent of women.

●  In 2020, 22 percent of men graduating from college earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science or engineering. For women, the figure was 5 percent.

●  For all racial and ethnic groups, the percentage of men who hold bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields (which tend to lead to higher paying jobs) who held jobs in STEM fields in 2019 was significantly higher than the percentage of women with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields who worked in STEM fields.

The vast differences in fields of study in higher education are a major contributing factor in occupational segregation after students leave higher education. This occupational segregation contributes to persisting gender pay gaps in the United States.

The full report, From Exclusion to Opportunity: The Role of Postsecondary Education in Labor Force Segregation & Recommendations for Action, may be downloaded here.

Filed Under: Gender GapResearch/Study


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