This year marks the first in U.S. history that women with at least a bachelor's degree will outnumber college-educated men in the workforce.

It's a radical change, and it's happened quickly by historical standards. At every level of the workforce, from entry level to C-suite, women now make up a bigger percentage of employees than they did in 2015.

Partly, it's the pipeline. In the United States, 57 percent of undergraduate college students are women.

Go back to 2001, and it was 50 percent. Go back to 1984, and it was 45.1 percent. Go all the way back to 1971 and it was reportedly 9.1 percent.

As a result, companies -- maybe yours among them -- are working to become more attractive to women employees.

That means changing how they describe jobs in advertisements. Gender-neutral language attracts top candidates faster, according to The Wall Street Journal's Chip Cutter.

Benefits also play a key role. A few that top companies are now offering include, according to a roundup this week in a different Journal article, by Likhitha Butchireddygari:

  • More flexible, family friendly schedules.
  • Paid parental leave. One study found that 24 percent of large companies offered family leave in 2015; 40 percent did as of a year ago.
  • Egg freezing. (17 percent of U.S. employers with more than 20,000 workers now offer this, up from 6 percent in 2015).

"It is the culmination of a trend that started maybe over 40 years ago," Nicole Smith, chief economist at Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told the Journal. "It's going to give women a lot more earning potential. It's going to give them more control over their finances, their own destiny."

Acting against that trend are two other factors:

  • First, the percentage of households led by single or divorced women had increased from 26 percent to 30.5 percent since 1980. That's slow but steady growth; single parent households of either gender simply earn less and spend more out of necessity than dual income families.
  • Second, while women significantly outnumber men in college, women do still make up a disproportionate amount of students in fields like teaching and nursing, that generally offer stability but at lower pay than other job fields.

And here's one other way that women have gotten less than their due. 

It's that U.S. colleges haven't increased the size of their classes to keep up with both population growth and the emergence of women in the workforce. The more I think about this, the more I think that even that statistic showing that 57 percent of undergraduates are women is artificially low.

As an example, consider Stanford University -- since it's one of the most prestigious U.S. universities, and also because its president was kind enough to assemble some key stats in a magazine article several years ago. 

In 1970, the U.S. population was 205.1 million. Stanford had 6,211 undergraduate students, and received 9,800 applications for its freshman class -- which resulted in a 22.4 percent acceptance rate.

Today, the total U.S. population is 57.5 percent bigger: 329.4 million. And while women barely applied to Stanford in the early 1970s, as we've seen they make up a majority of college students. 

Yet Stanford's freshman class size has increased only 13.7 percent since 1970. And its admission rate is a proportionately tiny 4.3 percent.

In other words -- using Stanford as an example, but I suspect it applies across the board -- U.S. colleges haven't remotely been keeping up their part of this bargain, because they haven't expanded anywhere near as the women-led workforce has expanded.

So if you're running a business: Yes, take a long look at the language you use in your job descriptions. And ask whether there are benefits you could be offering that would attract women candidates.

But also, reach out to your alma mater. Ask hard questions what they're doing to respond to the 21st century pool of applicants -- both men and women. 

If you want a successful business, you need the absolute best people in every key role. It makes sense to do all you can to make sure they're ready, willing, and eager when you have an opportunity to share.

Published on: Aug 22, 2019
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