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Women’s Education: Global and American Trends

Lindsey Ipson, M.Ed. College Student Affairs, Rutgers University

Currently, in all parts of the world, girls and women struggle to attain similar levels and qualities of education as their male counterparts. This is especially true in rural areas, where just 39% of girls attend secondary school, compared to 45% of boys. (1) In fact, globally, just 88% of women have received primary education, compared to 91% of men. (2) This inequality has cascading ramifications on the lives of women and their children, since studies have shown that the more education women receive, the more likely they are to marry at higher ages, have fewer children, and be less vulnerable to violence. (1) The more educated a woman is, the greater decision-making power she tends to hold within her household. (1) Furthermore, each additional year of primary school increases a girl’s eventual wages by 10-20%. (1) Since women who work are known to invest about 90% of their income back into their families, compared to about just 35% for men, increasing women’s potential earnings through education can have remarkable effects on future generations. (3)

Due to women’s unequal access to education, many more women tend to be illiterate than men. For instance, of the 781 million people above age fifteen who are presently illiterate, over two-thirds are women, a proportion that has remained consistent over the last two decades. (4) Illiteracy has been shown to have drastically negative effects on those who suffer from it, including poor physical health, low self worth, welfare dependency, communication issues, and more. (5) Moreover, those who are illiterate struggle to civically engage with society and are unable to hold governmental positions. Since the majority of illiterate people are women, this results in a systemic lack of representation of females in leadership and policy-making positions.

Women’s educational inequities have devastating effects also on children’s health and survival. In fact, women’s literacy greatly impacts infant and child mortality, as a child born to an illiterate mother is 50% less likely to survive beyond the age of five. (6) Additionally, for every extra year of education a woman receives, the probability of infant mortality decreases by about 5 to 10%. (7) However, a man’s level of literacy or education is shown to not have nearly as significant of an effect on their children’s mortality. For instance, studies show that a child’s mother’s education is a far stronger predictor of that child’s likelihood of surviving into adulthood than their father’s education. (8)

American Issues in Women’s Education

When moving from a global overview of women’s educational inequality to analyzing its presence and effects particularly in the United States, several other themes emerge including unequal access to financing of education across genders, disproportionate amounts of college debt between genders, and lack of representation of women in certain educational fields. As such, despite the fact that the United States has a greater percentage of more highly educated people as compared to other countries, American women still face their own unique disadvantages when it comes to education, and particularly higher education. Although they comprise a slightly larger percentage of the population pursuing undergraduate degrees, they still face many issues such as difficulty affording food and necessities while pursuing their degrees and graduating or leaving school with substantially more debt than male students. In addition, they also struggle to attain post-graduate jobs equivalent in salary and position to their male peers, and experience more difficulty in repaying student loans.

For instance, Americans today carry over $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, over double what the total American student loan debt was just ten years ago, and this figure is currently increasing at nearly six times the rate of inflation. (9) Women carry this burden disproportionately more than men, as they hold nearly two-thirds of these loans (around $929 billion). (10) On average, white men take out $29,862 in student loans, white women take out $31,346, and Black women take out $37,558. (11) In addition, women who are first generation college students also face drastically higher debt. For example, women whose parents hold at least one bachelor’s degree borrow on average $29,676.30, while women whose parents hold only high school diplomas or below borrow on average $33,822.10, which is $4,145.80 more. (11)

Another reason that American women face larger student loans than men is parents’ tendencies to favor their sons’ education over their daughters’. For instance, parents of all boys are more likely to have money saved for their children’s college education than parents of all girls. (12) In a survey of over 1,000 American parents with children of one gender, 50% of all-boy parents reported having money saved for college while just 39% of all-girl parents reported the same. (12) Additionally, parents of all boys were more likely to be more prepared and willing to pay for the entirety of their children’s education than parents of all girls. For example, 17% of all-boy parents said they planned to fully pay for the complete cost of their children’s education, compared to just 8% of all-girl parents. (12) As a result, female students tend to receive less parental financial help for college and are thus forced to take on more student debt than male students.

As shown, women, especially those belonging to other underprivileged groups, are graduating from or leaving college with substantially more debt than men. Furthermore, this burden continues to grow when women apply for their first jobs post college, where the wage gap and lack of equal opportunities for women in the workplace make it even harder for women to afford to repay their loans. In fact, women currently earn on average only 83% of what men earn in the United States. (13) This is true for women holding all types of college degrees. Women with associate’s degrees make on average $11,820 less than men with associate’s degrees, while women holding bachelor’s degrees earn $10,980 less than men holding bachelor’s degrees, and women with master’s degrees or higher earn about $13,130 less than men with those same degrees. (14) These lower wages and the subsequent increased hardship in repaying student loans often results in the postponement of women’s personal and financial goals. Indeed, more than a third of women (34.2%) report that their student loan debt has forced them to delay buying a home; 21.7% said it caused them to delay marriage; and 22.6% stated it led them to delay having children. (11)

Another contributing factor to American women’s adversity in higher education is their lack of representation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields, which also tend to constitute some of the most high-paying and rewarding career paths. In fact, the typical STEM worker earns two-thirds more than workers of other fields. (15) However, there are about double as many men graduating with STEM degrees in the United States than there are women. For instance, in 2020, 510,937 men were granted STEM diplomas in the United States, compared to only 263,034 women. (16) More specifically, women are awarded only 16% of Bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences, 21% of Bachelor’s degrees in engineering and engineering technology, 27% of Bachelor’s degrees in economics, and 38% of Bachelor’s degrees in physical sciences. (17) In consequence, women comprise only 27% of STEM workers. (18) Meanwhile, studies show that women do not lack interest or talent in these subjects; rather, it is social conditioning and influence that often steer them away from pursuing STEM degrees. (19)

As demonstrated, girls and women throughout the world face many challenges and disadvantages when it comes to education. This is also true for women in the United States, as they tend to have significantly more trouble than men in affording college and being able to find equally high-paying jobs and pay off student loans after completing university. Accordingly, American women can benefit greatly from programming that can help support them in: selecting, applying to, and affording colleges; choosing the best field of study for them, despite intimidation from typically male-dominated STEM fields; finding and pursuing leadership opportunities during and after college; and securing employment upon graduation with salaries large enough to be able to comfortably pay off student loans. Mentorship, especially from successful female professionals in a student’s chosen field, can help with these initiatives by providing student mentees with answers and advice pertaining to these matters and helping students to form and reach goals in each of these areas. In fact, for many female students, simply seeing and interacting with a female professional who is successful in that student’s field may help them better envision themselves in similar positions and instill in them the confidence to seek more leadership opportunities, apply to more advanced roles, and better negotiate salary and benefits when finding a position.


1. United Nations (n.d.). Rural Women and the Millennium Development Goals: Facts and Figures. UN Women.,Education,urban%20boys%20(60%20percent)

2. World Economic Forum. (2020). Global Gender Gap Report 2020.

3. International Finance Corporation. (2013). Assessing Private Sector Contributions to Job Creation and Poverty Reduction: Findings on Gender. World Bank Group.

4. United Nations. (2015). Education. In World’s Women 2015: Trends and Statistics. United Nations.

5. World Literacy Foundation. (2018). The Economic and Social Cost of Illiteracy.

6. Justice Rising International. (n.d.). Girls’ Education. Justice Rising.

7. UNESCO. (2017). Education for sustainable development. Retrieved from

8. Balaj, M., York, H. W., Sripada, K., Besnier, E., Vonen, H. D., Aravkin, A., Friedman, J., Griswold, M., Jensen, M. R., Mohammed, T., Mullany, E. C., Solhaug, S., Sorensen, R., Stonkute, D., Tallaksen, A., Whisnant, J., Zheng, P., Gakidou, E., Eikemo, T. A. (2021). Parental education and inequalities in child mortality: A global systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet, 398(10300), 608-620.

9. Federal Reserve Bank of New York. (2020). Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit.

10. Miller, K. (2017). Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans (pp. 35–36). American Association of University Women.

11. American Association of University Women analysis of U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, B&B:17 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study.

12. T. Rowe Price. (2017, September 21). Parents Of Only Boys Place Greater Priority On College Than Parents Of Only Girls. T. Rowe Price.

13. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, Median earnings for women in 2021 were 83.1 percent of the median for men at

14. National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). Digest of Education Statistics. Institute of Education Sciences.

15. Pew Research Center. (2018, January 8). The typical STEM worker now earns two-thirds more than non-STEM workers. Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project.

16. Duffin, E. (2021, September). Number of STEM degrees and certificates awarded in the United States from 2008-09 to 2019-20, by gender. Statista.

17. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, B&B:16/17 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study

18. United States Census Bureau. (2019). STEM and STEM-Related Occupations by Sex and Median Earnings: ACS 2019.

19. Hyde, J. S., & Mertz, J. E. (2009). Gender, culture, and mathematics performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(22), 8801–8807.

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