Today, women earn significantly more master's degrees than men, and in a diversity of fields. Nonetheless, women continue to face challenges to higher education, and remain under-represented in a number of industries. Thankfully, many schools and organizations recognize these trends and are taking steps to address them. Learn more about the state of women in graduate school, and the programs that help them succeed.
Career coach, speaker, and author of "Recession Proof Yourself!" and "I Quit! Working For You Isn't Working For Me."
Assistant Professor of Biology
College consultant, former admissions counselor and founder of LaMeire College Consulting in California's San Francisco Bay Area
Dean, School of Arts and Sciences
Women have not had it easy in the workplace. They still earn less than men, even when they have equivalent education and experience. There are still fewer women than men in C-level positions and women still experience more work-life balance challenges. It paints a pretty bleak picture, but not everything is so discouraging. One area that gets far too little attention is the rise of women in higher education. In 2013, the Russell Sage Foundation published seven compelling charts that summed up the current state of women in higher education perfectly—women outperform men in all levels of education, both in terms of academic achievement and attainment. The trend is particularly apparent when it comes to master’s degrees.
All of this spells good news for women looking to get ahead in the workplace. Groups like the Bureau of Labor Statistics have shown time and again that both earnings and advancement potential improve dramatically with higher education, so investing in a master's degree can quite literally pay off. This guide provides a snapshot of key career and education trends impacting women with master's degrees, including a review of some of the most (and least) popular degree programs. It also offers insight into programs and resources that can help women succeed, both in and out of graduate school.
It is no secret that women have had to overcome major obstacles to attend college, let alone graduate school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1880, women earned only 1.3 percent of all master's degrees conferred in the United States. What a difference a few decades can make: By 1910, women earned more than a quarter of all master's degrees, and by 1980, nearly half. As the Russell Sage Foundation reported, from then onward, the rate of women's master's degree completion began to soar, and by 2010, women were awarded roughly 50 percent more master's degrees than their male peers.
What changed? According to professional career coach, speaker and author of "Recession Proof Yourself!" Elizabeth Lions, women have gotten the memo that success often begins with higher education.
"Women are taught that education is the way to get ahead, so many will consider master's degrees or certifications, particularly at 40," said Lions.
Yanice Méndez-Fernández, an assistant professor of biology, agrees. She points out that many of the same trends that push more women to attend college today also push them to pursue advanced degrees, particularly the fact that more employers and industries than ever before prefer-sometimes require-a master's degree. There is also more awareness and acknowledgement that many fields simply benefit from the unique skills and perspectives that women have. Today schools, foundations, employers and government organizations actively recruit more women, and invest more in their training. Groups created to support women in school-such as the Society of Women Engineers and the American Association of University Women-have become far more common, as have women-centered scholarships and mentorship programs.
Another key factor in educational attainment among women, notes Méndez-Fernández, is society and its changing views on women, both in and out of the home.
“Social paradigms about the role of women in society and gender roles have changed significantly, making it more acceptable for women to have a career and also take care of a family,” said Méndez-Fernández, adding that women now tend to marry later and delay motherhood, giving them more time to complete graduate degrees without the demands of having a family. “These trends have also taken place during challenging economic times and tough job markets, pushing women to return to school or pursue graduate degrees after college with the incentive of becoming a more competitive candidate and having a higher earning potential.”
This is not to say, however, that women do not continue to face life balance challenges while pursuing master's degrees, said Lions, but motivated students often find ways to push past them.
"Work/life balance will always be an issue for women. These trends carry on after school and during school. One must be very focused and driven to want to pursue a master's degree. It is often wise to do this right after college and not wait, regardless of the pressure to get a job and pay off undergraduate school debt."-Elizabeth Lions
Career coach, speaker, and author of "Recession Proof Yourself!" and "I Quit! Working For You Isn't Working For Me"
Regardless of the reason, the fact that more women are earning master's degrees has created a sort of positive feedback loop: Women with master's degrees pave the way for a whole new, larger generation of successful women, both in school and in the workplace.
“As these trends continue and increase, more women will serve as role models and mentors to young women who are considering a career requiring a graduate degree, a relationship which may encourage more women to pursue graduate studies,” said Méndez-Fernández.
Of course, the gains women have made in graduate school are not apparent across the board. Women are far more likely to pursue master's degrees in certain fields, but remain grossly under-represented in others.
Certain fields tend to attract more women than men (and vice-versa), which means women are more likely to earn master's degrees in certain fields than others. For instance, experts have noted that women tend to gravitate toward helping and social fields, or fields in which they can have an impact on other people. As a result, women tend to dominate in fields such as nursing, teaching and social work. Whether this is the result of certain traits and characteristics often associated with women is debatable, but the fact that women were once socially restricted to employment in such fields is undoubtedly a factor.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the following represents the 10 most popular master's degrees for women in the U.S. during the 2008-09 academic year:
With the exception of business administration and management—which topped the list for both women and men—and educational leadership, this list is strikingly different from that of the most popular master’s degrees for men that same year. Men are much more likely to study fields such as engineering, computer science and finance, which means that women remain under-represented in these fields at the graduate school level and beyond.
The importance of having more women in so-called male dominated fields should not be overlooked. As more women make strides in such fields, they can serve as examples and mentors for others who wish to follow suit.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook and former VP of Global Online Sales & Operations at Google -“ MBA, Harvard Business School
Marissa Mayer, CEO at Yahoo! and former VP of Product Management and Engineering at Google -“ M.S. in computer science, Stanford University
Arianna Huffington, Founder of The Huffington Post -“ M.A. in economics, Cambridge University
Indra K. Nooyi, Chairman and CEO at PepsiCo -“ MBA, Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta and Master of Public and Private Management, Yale University
Anne Sweeney, Co-Chair Disney Media Networks and President of Disney-ABC Television Group -“ Ed.M. from Harvard University
Safra A. Catz, President and Chief Financial Officer at Oracle -“ J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School
Data from both the NCES and the Russell Sage Foundation make it clear that while women have made gains in a number of disciplines, a persistent gender gap continues in a number of fields, especially science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. However, while women have made major inroads academically, the trend has not easily carried over to the workplace. Business is an excellent example of this.
"There have been more women than men at all levels of higher ed for some time, but there has recently been a spike in the number of women pursuing MBAs, specifically," said former admissions counselor and founder of LaMeire College Consulting Eddie LaMeire. "A lot of this growth seems to stem from the flexibility that MBAs have over other advanced degrees."
However, despite the growing number of women earning MBAs, women are still under-represented in the business world, especially at the C-suite level. According to the U.S. Senate Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee, women only own 30 percent of small businesses, and only receive 4.4 percent of the dollars in conventional small-business loans. Women are also less likely to make it into the C-suite, and even those who do become CEOs still earn less than their male colleagues.
The discipline-based gender divide is even more apparent in STEM fields. According to the National Science Foundation, female participation in a number of STEM majors is improving, but women are still far less likely than men to enter fields like science and engineering. In some cases, participation is actually declining: In 2011, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that the share of women in computer science jobs fell from 30 percent to 27 percent over the course of a decade, and the decline was even sharper in terms of degrees conferred.
However, even when women do pursue tech degrees, they continue to face challenges in the workplace. According to NPR, many female programmers in Silicon Valley, report feeling alienated and excluded, which often gives way for a new workplace problem—retaining women employees.
Business and tech organizations do not need to look at these reports to know they are not attracting—and retaining—enough female employees and many groups are taking steps to address the issue. Women-centered organizations providing support and mentorship, such as the Society of Women Engineers and the Association for Women in Science, are also expanding, as are groups like the National Association of Women Business Owners and the American Business Women’s Association. These organizations help professional women break into and make an impact on male-dominated fields. Méndez-Fernández, who holds advanced degrees and teaches graduate-level courses in biomedical science, recognizes the efforts some organizations have made to boost female participation and enrollment in STEM fields.
“Educators, private foundations, and governmental entities have actively recruited women and then funded their studies in STEM careers,” said Méndez-Fernández.
Many programs are geared toward college-aged and professional women, but some companies and organizations want to boost female STEM participation right from the start. Google, for example, has launched initiatives designed to address the root of the problem. In 2014, the company started its “Made With Code” initiative; a program that aims to get young girls excited about computer science and encourage them to explore coding through introductory projects and resources. Google has also invested in similar organizations such as Code.org, Girls Who Code, NCWIT, and Black Girls Code. Another program called the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP), which is partially funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, Human Resource Development, and Research on Gender in Science and Engineering, provides resources for parents and teachers who want to inspire young girls to pursue fields like science and engineering. Both NGCP and Made With Code hope to normalize women pursuing these fields before social norms and trends dissuade them.
“If a woman has grown up adjusting to old social paradigms, thinking that these types of careers are only for men, if no one has ever nurtured her interests in these fields, or if she has never had a role model in this area, she is less likely to pursue graduate studies in physics, engineering, or math,”-–Yanice Méndez-Fernández, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Biology
Today, women are not just more likely to go to graduate school than their male peers, but are also more likely to complete their courses online. According to a 2013 study on online college students, a full 53 percent of respondents were women in online graduate degree programs.
Online learning is appealing to many women for a variety of reasons. Most women, however, gravitate towards online learning because it allows them to manage and juggle other personal and professional responsibilities. For example, though stay-at-home-dads are far more common than they used to be, many women still choose to stay home with their children each year. Online graduate degree programs allow such women to advance their education, which enhances their marketability, without having to invest in childcare and additional travel expenses such as commuting. Even women who delay motherhood or do not opt to stay home may find the flexibility of online learning appealing, since it allows them to invest in their education while continuing to work and gain real world experience.
It is no secret that when women earn master's degrees, everyone benefits. More education usually means more money and a faster trek up the corporate ladder. As the National Women's Law Center reported in 2014, these benefits are especially notable at home, where higher wages correlate with better child and health care options for the whole family. Companies also stand to benefit from hiring more women, particularly in management positions, since they bring with them their own unique perspectives. A 2011 analysis of gender in the business world by Development Dimensions International found that companies with more women leaders tend to be more profitable than competing organizations in which men dominate the top ranks. Workers also report a higher satisfaction with management overall in organizations with more women leaders.
There are a number of ways schools, organizations and even other women can support female grad students; for example, mentorship, scholarships and professional networking opportunities.
Méndez-Fernández has no shortage of advice for young women considering graduate school. Her tips include:
Find a role model. She encourages women to seek role models and build a support network of peers and family who can provide encouragement, guidance, advice and motivation during challenging times.
Find your passion. She also encourages women to pursue programs in fields they are passionate about—a sentiment echoed by her colleague, Lena Hegi Welch, dean of Trevecca Nazarene University’s School of Arts and Sciences.
"Graduate school is a sacrifice," said Welch. "Even with the conveniences of technology and distance programs, graduate school cuts into time spent with family and friends, pulls a woman away from other professional endeavors, and is emotionally stressful. The benefits of graduate school are huge and well worth the sacrifices, but a woman needs to be passionate about the graduate work she is doing."
LaMeire—who watched not only clients, but also his wife succeed in graduate school—recommends that women keep goals in sight, even when things get tricky.
“If you’re going to pursue something that requires as much commitment as a graduate program, then, there needs to be a true reward at the end of the process,” said LaMeire. “Don’t look at it as the ‘reality deferment program,’ as so many students do. Instead look at it as a practical matter that will put you in a position to have a more flexible and rewarding work life.”
More tips for women pursuing master’s degrees include:
Research a number of schools and majors before committing to one specific program. Consider career goals, lifestyle and personal learning style when evaluating contenders.
Marketing materials only get prospective students so far. Contact schools and ask to be linked with an alumna who can provide more insight into what programs entail, and how they benefit graduates in the workplace.
Find a mentor. Whether it is a faculty adviser, an accomplished woman in the field, or just a good friend who has been there, having a go-to resource for support and inspiration can make the labors of graduate school all the more manageable.
Join student and professional organizations designed specifically for women in your chosen discipline and future career field. These groups can put women in touch with other women with whom they can relate, but also build strong professional networks that can pay off down the line.
Do the math. Advanced education usually means higher earnings, regardless of one’s chosen field, but this is especially true in a number of key fields. Researching earnings by field and degree give grad students valuable perspective.
One of the many ways institutions and organizations support women pursuing master’s degrees is through scholarship and fellowship programs. Some programs are designed specifically for women pursuing fields such as STEM or business; others were established specifically for women juggling school and family life. The following are some examples of the types of scholarships that are available to female graduate students. Students can research other programs by visiting their schools’ financial aid offices, or by searching online scholarship databases. Many student and professional organizations for women also host or promote scholarships and grants on their websites.