With more women than men enrolling in higher education, companies should prepare for talent pools in which more highly qualified candidates are women.

Boyden's perspectives on the news and trends that are transforming industries

Data from the Current Term Enrollment Estimates report from the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks higher education enrolment statistics in the U.S., show that for every two men enrolled, there are approximately three women. Enrolment among male students has been falling for decades. In spring 2021, undergraduate enrolment hit new lows overall due to COVID-19, but the decline from last year in male students (400,000 fewer) was nearly twice as steep as in female students (203,000 fewer).

There is also a gender gap in graduation rates, with male undergraduates less likely to finish their degree. The resulting entrance of more college-educated women into the workforce will have a significant impact on talent pools, not only in the United States but throughout much of the world. Among 25- to 34-year-olds in all 38 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), women are more likely to have a tertiary degree than men.

Women also comprise the majority in prestigious programmes such as medicine and law as well as master’s and doctoral degrees. And while men continue to lead in business schools, more women are joining their ranks. As the New York Times observes, “the usual hothouses that grow captains of industry and political leaders are now dominated by women”. However in the highest-paying fields, including business, computer science and engineering, men still hold the majority.

Pay for women across industries continues to lag that of men, even as their presence grows. Describing the progress of equal pay for women as an “unfinished revolution”, economist Justin Wolfers attributes the ongoing pay gap both to lingering discrimination and to women continuing to take on greater family burdens than their male counterparts. This became starkly apparent during the pandemic.

Wolfers emphasizes the family factor, drawing a close tie between work and family. Women experience burnout at higher rates than men, often due to the pressures of balancing the two. Still, according to McKinsey’s 2021 Women in the Workplace report, “Women are not leaving their companies at higher rates than men, and very few plan to leave the workforce to focus on family.” Organizations that rely on their contributions – as many more will – will need to support women in navigating work-life challenges.

Inequality in educational attainment will have consequences, and companies should prepare for talent pools in which a larger proportion of highly qualified candidates are women. Competition for female candidates will likely intensify, and organizations that have taken steps – such as addressing inequity in hiring and promotions, correcting the gender pay gap, and making DEI a priority – stand to gain the advantage. Inevitably, says Wolfers, “The structure of high-paying jobs will slowly adapt to better fit the needs of women as they become a more dominant share of the educated workforce.”

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