There are now officially as many college-educated women in the workforce as college-educated men; but parity does not mean equality of opportunity and businesses ignoring this growing talent pool are missing a huge opportunity.
Before the end of this year, women in the workforce with at least a bachelor’s degree will outnumber men with an equivalent qualification. The U.S. college-educated workforce totaled 58.8 million in June, according to Bureau of Labor statistics, of whom 29.5 million are women.
However, women have been outperforming men in education for 37 years, as was noted in March in our article celebrating International Women’s Day.
Since the 1981-82 academic year, over 50% of college degrees earned in the U.S. have been awarded to women and the number has been rising steadily since. Currently women graduate with 57% of bachelor’s degrees, 59% of master’s degrees and 53% of doctorates (according to the National Center for Education Statistics).
Therefore, based on United States Census Bureau data, the number of women in the population with a college education has been greater than the number of college-educated men since 2007.
Even taking into account that a smaller percentage of women than men are active participants in the workforce (57.1% v 69.1%), it has still taken over a decade for women to achieve parity in occupations requiring a degree.
One reason for this is structural. Many large organizations lack the agility to react quickly to changes in the labor force. Therefore it has taken time for business to align with the reality of the job market.
However, while there is now parity, across a number of professions inequality persists. If we were to focus solely on roles within Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) – the industries that are shaping our future and redefining society – just 22% of computer programmers and 20% of software developers are women. In mathematics, the gap is smaller (46% of mathematical workers are women), but only 14% of engineers and architects are female.
Part of this disparity can be put down to preconceptions. When I speak with female employees across our software engineering, development, digital and IT functions many of them admit that even they saw being a programmer or a coder as something that only geeky boys do. In many cases it was an inspiring tutor or supportive parent that helped them see past the preconception.
Their experiences are helping SItel Group as an organization to reassess how we promote roles in these sectors, the language we use and the support we offer for new employees. But if we really want to address this particular inequality, we have to go further still, engaging the local communities where we work and demonstrating to children that a career in STEM is for everyone.
Likewise, we need to continue to demonstrate to our existing talent pool that there is a clear career path in STEM positions within our organization and that access to further training and mentoring programs is a given.
Alongside preconceptions is the issue of flexibility and familial commitment. Even as we arrive at the third decade of the second millennium, women are still more often than men a family’s primary caregiver. They’re expected to juggle the responsibilities of parenthood with maintaining a career. In the past this has led women to seek out roles with fixed hours or to depart entirely from the labor force. For example, when the Pew Research Center last examined the subject in 2014, it found that 85% of married stay-at-home mothers with children under the age of 18 were not at work because of the demands of family management.
Even if we look at this situation in purely financial terms it is depressing. An organization recruits and develops someone who becomes a star employee but then because of a change in family circumstances and a need for greater working flexibility, that person then has to leave. It’s a lose-lose situation.
This is one of the reasons we created Sitel at Home, a mission-driven business within a business. We wanted to give our most prized and experienced contact center associates the flexibility they need to balance family commitments with continuing to develop their careers. Thousands of women around the U.S. and Canada have benefited from Sitel at Home with flexible scheduling and the opportunity to work from home. Since its launch, we’ve been able to increase our retention rates significantly and continue to deliver a differentiated customer experience for our clients’ customers.
But these types of initiatives are not only aimed at or designed for women in the workforce. All workers across all industries value flexibility and understanding in the workplace.
When polled by the Pew Research Center, over 70% of professional men and women put having the flexibility to balance work and their private lives as the biggest factor in choosing a job. It came above salary, opportunities for career progression and doing something meaningful.
This is because regardless of gender, Americans are dedicated to hard work and self improvement but they also want to be dedicated to their families and achieve things beyond their careers. Tomorrow’s industry-leading companies are the ones that realize this and facilitate it today.
VP Talent Acquisition for Sitel Group