Long before the term “glass ceiling” was ever coined, heroines throughout history have shattered narrow ideas of what women could accomplish. Thanks largely to education’s power to expand opportunity, women’s progress in the modern era toward real equality in traditionally male fields has been truly remarkable — from Rosalyn Yalow, the first American-educated woman to win a Nobel prize in science, to astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, to Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox and the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company.
History also teaches us that progress on a grand scale is a product of careful planning and implementation. A perfect example of this is the groundbreaking Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which helped ensure that women had equal access to attend the schools of their choice, to study and pursue careers in the fields of their choice without discrimination. And indeed today women earn more than half of all associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees awarded by U.S. colleges.
Despite the progress we have made, many women, in particular women of color, still face struggles in their pursuit of higher education. That awareness is a big part of why I support for the Common Core State Standards.
They establish a set of clear, consistent guidelines for the skills and knowledge students should master at each grade level in math and English language arts so that they graduate from high school able to successfully complete freshman-level courses. These uniform, more rigorous K-12 education standards have the potential to reduce gender-based inequities by ensuring that every young woman receives the educational foundation she needs to be successful in college and career.
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With Common Core’s more engaging and challenging standards, we can narrow the gender achievement gap that begins early and worsens by eighth grade, particularly for black and Hispanic girls. Through better K-12 academic preparation, we can lower the number of female students and students of color taking remedial college courses. We know that even in our technology-saturated age, too many girls still don’t have enough access to rigorous coursework in science, technology, engineering and math.
That can help remedy a situation where women represent 57 percent of all four-year undergraduate degrees, but just 48 percent of majors in business, 19 percent in computer/information science, 18 percent of engineering, 43 percent in math and statistics and 40 percent in physical sciences.
We know that gender-based disparities in education lead to disparities in employment, meaning a gender pay gap that begins immediately after college leads to a situation where one year after graduation, women on average earn just 82 percent of men’s salaries.
We know that women who work full-time still earn just 78 cents for every dollar that men earn. But most important, we know that none of these inequities are a product of destiny, and the Common Core can help make each one of them a thing of the past. And although the inexcusable gender wage gap persists even after controlling for college major, occupation and hours worked, we can help narrow that gap by making sure more women are academically prepared for the highest paying fields.
The Common Core State Standards will establish a strong academic foundation for all students, but girls — in particular girls of color — have a lot to gain. These standards’ higher expectations for student learning will put more opportunities in the reach of girls and young women, from STEM learning in grade school, to a broader set of college majors, to the highest paying jobs in this land of opportunity.
With these advantages within their grasp, it may be the millions of young women being educated to Common Core Standards today who are ultimately in a position to eliminate the glass ceiling once and for all.
Donna Shalala has been president of the University of Miami since 2001.