More women complete degrees and leave universities as high performers. Yet their paths to fulfilling careers hold greater challenges and fewer guarantees. It’s up to the newly educated workforce of women college graduates to turn advances in education into career gains.
Congratulations to all women college graduates. You have achieved the goal of education. You are part of the larger group of women in the United States who are more educated than men. This trend, which according to the National Center for Education Statistics started in 2014, has reached a point where 300,000 more women than men will earn college degrees this year. Women’s overall performance in school, as measured by higher GPAs and the percentage of degree completion in 4 years, also surpasses those levels attained by men.
Progress is moving at a slower pace, however, for women and workplaces. Women represent the majority of knowledge workers in today’s economy. Yet assurances that 21st century companies will hire educated workers, and therefore more women, are by no means guaranteed. The American promise that college education leads to better paying jobs has never been a sure thing. That promise today runs three-quarters full and could still turn out to be half empty.
Encouraging signs of progress can be found for women who work. For instance, during the State of the Union address, President Trump shared favorable employment data which indicated that, “58% of the new jobs created in the economy last year were filled by women.”
Still, wages lag stubbornly behind. Women currently earn 81% of what men are paid for equivalent work. If a dollar bill represented an investment in work, women would have lost 20 percent of the initial sum of money invested. It would take them more than a 20 percent gain (i.e., 25 percent to be precise) to get back their original dollar of investment. This, you may know, is defined as the gender pay gap.
Rising college debt also increases financial pressure and causes some women to take employment which does not compensate them for earning a college education. Being overqualified for a job leads to underemployment, which postpones the start of a job and begins the widening gap of unequal pay throughout a woman’s career.
The subtle difference between taking employment and starting a professional career, (i.e., defined as a first job which requires a degree and is paid a college wage premium), is a matter of urgency that’s not lost on women college graduates. For example, I recently attended an industry event where several talented women told me they didn’t know how to start their careers. Women college graduates realize how important being prepared is to beginning a career, but lack resources to do so. Yet, they also know when and where to apply pressure on themselves. It’s as one student at a well-known university mentioned to me, “A lot of the women are on the internship hunt and they’re stressing about future career endeavors.”
Difficult as it may seem, the key to bridging the college-to-professional career divide for women is all about effectively starting a career. Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California School System, agrees saying, “First jobs right out of college are critical to setting the stage for women’s future earning power.” Note how she doesn’t just connect college-to-career, but college-to-career earnings.
You should not allow the loss of a college wage premium combined with the gender pay gap become a double whammy setback in your career. Although underemployment can affect college graduates, it remains a choice not a destiny. Don’t assume it has to, or will, happen to you. Women college graduates should neither stress starting careers nor accept being overqualified and underemployed for jobs as “the way it is.” Getting started in a career that requires a degree and pays the college wage premium allows you to gain ground other women may have lost and see a positive, rather than a setback, progression of your career.
These are a few of the realities and upside opportunities facing women college graduates and work in the 21st century. There comes a point when each of you must take individual action to make positive developments happen during the span of your career. College graduation is that time. The stage you graduate on will launch your first job and the diploma is your license to drive. Momentum is building and signs of progress are being made on significant levels by many women who have preceded you. You have a college degree so use your education and talents now to get ahead and find a professional job. Do whatever inspires confidence and motivates you as justification to “own and develop a career.” Lastly, turn any career nonstarters into career upstart activities. In 2-5 years, when you consider what’s next for work, you will be much further down the path of good options and better choices. That’s a pretty respectable career start for someone who is now standing on a platform occupied by others with only a piece of paper in their hands.