College studies still fall along gender lines

May 7, 2012

From “College studies still fall along gender lines” — When Breana Cleven dons a cap and gown next week to accept a certificate in welding from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, she’ll be part of a minority and majority.

Women have outnumbered men at local colleges for more than a generation, and their ranks are growing. But educators say certain areas of study continue to be dominated by women or men. Women, for example, slowly are gravitating to fields typically favored by men, including welding, science or engineering.

Cleven will be one of the 65 percent or so of female graduates, but just one of two women graduating with a welding certificate.

“I’ve always worked on farms and stuff so I’m used to working with men,” said Cleven, who graduated from high school in 2009 and lives in the Wrightstown area. “I got a job welding last summer and did a little bit of welding in high school. I decided to get a certificate and hopefully get a good job.”

When students at three local colleges — NWTC, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and St. Norbert College — graduate in the coming weeks, more women than men will accept diplomas.

For the past 20 years, women have made up about 60 percent of NWTC’s student population. They now make up about two-thirds of the student body, or 64 percent. Sixty-eight percent of University of Wisconsin-Green Bay graduates in 2011 were women and at St. Norbert College, almost 60 percent of the class of 2011 was female.

“I think the trend of more women in college than men has been going on for a while,” said Karen Smits, vice president for college advancement at NWTC who suggested that the long-term trends could be moving to better reflect the makeup of communities.

In the past 10 years, women nationwide have earned about 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the same period, the number of women earning master’s degrees has grown from 58 percent to 60 percent, and the number of female doctoral graduates has increased from 43 percent in 1998-99 to 52 percent in 2008-09, the most recent numbers available from the Virginia-based center.

Gender specific

Classes at NWTC in decades past were pretty starkly divided — photos from the 1930s show a science class full of men and a typing class filled mostly with women.

Those numbers are changing, but maybe not as fast as people would assume.

“You still see women moving into the health professions and men into manufacturing and construction programs,” Smits said. “We have seen some crossover, but maybe not as much as we would have hoped for.”

When nursing shortages made headlines in the mid-2000s, Smits said NWTC saw a jump in men signing up for its two-year registered nursing program. Still, just 127 men have graduated from the community college with an RN degree in the past 20 years, compared with 1,752 women.

Likewise, in a 20-year span, women accounted for 85 percent of the school’s accounting graduates and all of its administrative assistant, administrative professional, dental assistant and childcare graduates. They also accounted for nearly all the school’s dental hygienist and data entry operations graduates, as well as dominated health- and medical-related programs. Percentages of women are in the single digits for many electrical, automotive and engineering programs, but Smits said numbers of women in those areas are growing.

In the past 20 years, she noted that 96 percent of welding graduates were men. But there are some signs of growth — six women graduated with welding certificates two years ago.

“A lot of people think it’s only a man’s job, but women can do it, too,” Cleven said. “I think the guys are pretty good about it.”

Twenty years ago, 64 percent of UW-Green Bay graduates were women. In 2011 they made up 68 percent of graduates.

Since at least 1990, women have earned about 90 percent of education, social work and nursing degrees at the school. They’ve made up half the business graduates, as well as communications graduates, which includes computers and information sciences.

The number of women, as a percentage of all natural and applied sciences majors, which includes math, rose steadily through the 1990s before leveling off in the mid-2000s. Women represented just 46 percent of natural science, including math, majors from 1990-91 to 1994-95, and just 10 years later, they represented 65 percent of natural sciences, including math, majors. Today, women represent 60 percent of natural science majors.

St. Norbert does not break out the numbers similarly.

Smits of NWTC said administrators are trying to encourage crossover.

“What we’re trying to do is let both genders know there are great opportunities for both,” she said. “For women, we talk about some of the possibilities in manufacturing. For men, we talk about health care, noting it does involve science, you’re just working with people.”

She acknowledges change takes time.

“Children and high school kids are influenced by their parents, or what their guidance counselors talk to them about,” Smits said. “It’s a long, slow process.

“But I do think after 15 years of flat, we’re starting to see an uptick of change. We’re hosting workshops to help kids see different career opportunities, and I think high schools and middle schools are making an effort to show those possibilities, too.”

Equal pay?

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women with associate degrees earn about 75 percent of what men with two-year degrees earn. That could be because jobs traditionally held by men, such as engineering and mechanics, often pay more than jobs traditionally held by women.

The research institute also found that men earn more than women in most fields that require a two-year degree or certificate. The median salary for a female childcare worker, for example, in 2010 was $18,336, compared with $23,716 for men. It noted female elementary and middle school teachers earn about 91 percent of their male counterparts, and females in health-related occupations, such as nurses or home health aides, earn about 88 percent of men in this jobs, despite making up about 80 percent of workers in those fields.

Smits said wages are good in both traditionally male or female occupations, depending on the field. NWTC surveys students six months after graduation who are working in their chosen profession.

The most recent survey found that dental assistants, who are almost always female, earned an average of about $26,000 in 2011.

Those working in the diagnostic medical sonography field, which also is dominated by women, made about $61,000 that year. Nurses made about $47,000, and administrative professionals started at $27,000 a year.

Those graduating from the electrical mechanical engineering program, a traditionally male field, made an average $57,600, she said.

“I think both men and women can earn good salaries and we encourage them to think of it as the start of their career, rather than as a job,” she said.


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