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This is what women in the class of 2020 really want

Kim Churches, the CEO of the American Association of University Women, says that it’s important, now more than ever, to ensure graduates start their adult lives on equitable economic footing.
College Graduations
Today, women are disproportionately affected by unemployment, says AAUW's Kim Churches. ASSOCIATED PRESS

No one needs to hear any more bad news, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s graduation season and things are looking pretty grim for the Class of 2020. With an unpredictable pandemic and a startled economy, today’s graduates — women especially — are facing a fragile future.

If there’s any upside to this, it’s the fact that our current crisis is laying bare so many of the disturbing inequities in our society. Simmering problems, too long on the back burner, are now fully ablaze. This is the moment to seize the opportunity and address the issues that we’ve ignored for far too long. The best gifts we can give young women graduates to ensure they start their adult lives on equitable economic footing.

Help with student loans.

The student debt crisis affects everyone, but women are especially hard hit, holding about two-thirds of the nation’s $1.5 trillion debt. A Black woman, for example, finishes college owing $37,558, about 23 percent more than a white male, who has just under $30,000 in debt. And women whose parents don’t have a college degree borrow an average of about $4,100 more than women whose parents hold a bachelor’s.

Paying off that debt has long been harder for women: An American Association of University Women survey found that 23.2 percent of women had difficulty making payments during the first year compared to 21 percent of men — and that was in a strong economy.

Today, women are disproportionately affected by unemployment. The professional jobs women aspired to are in short supply, and the side jobs in restaurants and retail businesses that many relied on to pay off college loans have all but disappeared. While the federal CARES act is offering some relief, it’s nowhere near enough. We need to extend tuition assistance programs, bolster federal grants, cancel student debt for at least some and commit to ways to making college more affordable.

The promise of equal pay.

The Class of 2020 is graduating into a stubbornly persistent gender pay gap: A survey by the Economic Policy Institute found that, right out of college, women make about $3 less per hour than men. Part of the reason for this is the kinds of jobs women pursue. Fields that have historically dominated by men simply pay better than female-dominated ones, even when they require the same level of education, training and skill. But the pandemic is shining the spotlight on the importance of so-called “women’s work.” A recent New York Times analysis of census data found that one in three jobs held by women has been designated as “essential.”

As we work to rebuild our economy in the coming years, we should fight for laws and policies that ensure salaries are based on a worker’s skills and responsibility, not whether they’re working in a male- or female-dominated field. If unemployment continues to disproportionately hurt women, we need to bolster job training and re-skilling programs to bring more women into fields where there is greater demand.

A workplace for today’s world.

Until the pandemic upended our lives, many workplaces were based on an old model of family, one from the time when one partner (usually dad) was the primary earner and the other (usually mom) took care of kids and life at home. That made it hard for parents in contemporary families to both succeed. COVID-19 has forced that outdated workplace paradigm right out the window. Suddenly, people who could work remotely began doing so, and managers found that productivity didn’t suffer. The issue of child-care, largely ignored by employers, suddenly began looming large. The consequences of not having paid sick leave literally became a matter of life and death. In short, problems the workplace ignored demanded immediate attention.

It’s hard to predict how the recovery from this crisis will play out, but it’s safe to say that we’re unlikely to return to the old status quo. This moment in history is a turning point, and we all need to commit to make the changes we’ve long known are necessary. It may take longer than usual for women graduating this year to find their footing, but in the meantime, all of us – employers, policymakers, advocates — need to do everything we can to ensure their future success.

Kim Churches is the CEO of the American Association of University Women, a national non-partisan nonprofit that works to advance gender equity for women and girls through research, education and advocacy.