The graduating class of 2018 represents thousands of women who will be entering the workforce ready to apply all the knowledge they have learned to the next phase of their lives. They will suddenly move from institutions who have acted in loco parentis – like parents – to institutions that take a more sink or swim approach. Many of these institutions will be male-dominated.
Women comprise more than 56 percent of American college students, according the U.S. Department of Education, and it estimates this trend will continue through 2026.
According to a recent study by LeanIn.org and MckKinsey & Co. men and women have very different experiences and perceptions of the workplace.
These gender-based differences are reflected in promotions, raises and the overall workplace environment.
A key finding of the report is that men far outpace women in management and executive positions. So, despite the strides women have made in succeeding in higher education, they continue to struggle once they move into the “real world.” The LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. study shows that white men outnumber all other groups in corporate fields from entry to corporate levels. This means that white women in this year’s graduating class will make up 31 percent of entry level job as compared to 36 percent of men, and women of color only 17 percent.
The classroom can and should be a great “laboratory” for simulating workplace dynamics while empowering women.
For those women who enroll in college, they share spaces, and have conversations with men in ways they may not have the opportunity to in the workplace. Having more women in the classroom empowers them to have such conversations with a level of freedom and engagement than they might not otherwise be able to in spaces where they were the minority. From courses in journalism to advertising to public relations, these women are able to bounce ideas off each other in ways that are open and supportive. While this is great for women in higher education, it belies the reality of what many experience in the workplace.
But when women graduate from their universities they will be entering workplaces whose missions have little interest in advancing equality or social justice, where they will be the minority, and too often, where their voices may be suppressed. The realities of doing day-to-day work, coupled with management systems that are in direct contrast to the concept of in loco parentis may make for a rude awakening for these women.
Higher education must prepare women for these more challenging environments.
One way they already try to do this is by requiring internships for some majors. Frankly, this should be mandatory for all majors. Internships should be treated as case studies for students on how to manage lessons that can’t be taught in the classroom. Post-secondary institutions can also employ more full-time instructors, or adjuncts, who are working professionals, and encourage them to teach not just about the skills their profession requires, but how to manage the politics of working in their industry.
Another area college can help women flourish in the workplace is to teach them about their legal rights, and train them on how navigate contracts before they sign on the dotted line. My program has recently held workshops on workplace harassment and it was well-received by students so much so that they asked for more of this type of programming. Content like this can be a natural fit for career service departments to help prepare all students for on-the-job challenges.
So long as higher education finds itself sending women into fields that suffer from gender inequities they must balance their role of “parent” and educator with the realities of inequities they will face in the workplace.
Jessica Brown is a Senior Professional in Residence in the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago, and a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project.