Student’s Award Highlights Accomplishments, Challenges for Women in Higher Education

By Brian Soika

August 30, 2021

Two women in higher education network at a university event

Prospective doctoral students at the student-led PhD Preparation Summit in 2019

Women in higher education face a unique set of circumstances. 

As students, they attend college in higher numbers than men. They also make up the majority of the higher education workforce, and earn more graduate degrees

But despite their majority status, they can experience pay disparity and lack of organizational support.

Maria Salgado is keenly aware of these issues.

The Master of Education in Enrollment Management and Policy online (EMP online) student recently received a grant from the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The award is designed to support women who are re-entering academia to advance their career. 

Salgado’s background and interest in a leadership position within higher education align with the objectives of the AAUW. 

She notes that while many women attend college, they still face barriers. Society hasn’t “overcome that [biased] way of thinking about what women can accomplish,” she says. 

Institutional Change Requires Cultural Shifts

A pledge from higher education institutions to address gender equity can be helpful, especially if it is secured by a commitment from top leaders. 

However, meaningful change requires a shift in a school’s culture. For large or older institutions, this may be particularly difficult. 

As a woman of color with leadership aspirations, Salgado acknowledges that she may have to navigate obstacles on her career path: 

  • Only thirty percent of all college and university presidents are women
  • Of that thirty percent, only five percent are women of color 
  • Black and Latinx women are overwhelmingly selected for leadership roles such as Chief Diversity Officer, but other top positions (e.g., Chief Financial Officer) are primarily occupied by white men 
A portrait of a woman in higher education, Maria Salgado

Maria Salgado is pursuing leadership positions in higher education. Photo via USC Online.

Women Interested in High-Earning Careers Need Support

“When I was an undergraduate, [there weren’t] a lot of people around that looked like me,” says Salgado. 

The lack of diversity was indicative of another problem.

Despite being admitted to college as a math major, she did not receive guidance on how she might pursue her interest in the subject as a professional; so she decided to switch to political science. “Women of color are not finding the support that they need to be successful in [high-earning] fields,” she adds. 

Research shows an over-representation of men in STEM majors and occupations, which typically have high salaries. Meanwhile, women are under-represented in high-salary careers across all professions

But there may be solutions. 

Here are some ways that institutions can give women in higher education (especially women of color) the support they need to prepare them for professional success. 

  • Identify and support women with an interest in STEM and other high-earning professions
  • Provide career counseling
  • Develop professional networking skills
  • Connect students with women in leadership positions

Mentors Can Play an Important Role

Encouragement and guidance from a mentor can help women excel in fields in which they are under-represented, says Salgado. As a master’s student, she values the opportunities to hear from women in higher education leadership roles. 

“Maria entered our program with energy and drive,” says Jerry Lucido, PhD, who co-founded the EMP program and serves as Executive Director for the Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice (CERPP).

Lucido selected her to participate in research specific to her area of interest and calls her an “invaluable member” of the research teams. “[Institutions] can and should go the extra mile to identify and reward women like Maria,” he says. 

Learn more about the AAUW’s career development grant, and other funding opportunities for women.