An Equal Career Start, But Still Less Opportunity for Women?

Lydia Shoaf

There’s been a demographic shift when it comes to college attendance and those earning degrees in higher education.  There are now more women enrolled in higher education than men, and higher percentages of women entering the workforce with college degrees — for associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs. But women with equal qualifications are still earning lower incomes, and not rising to leadership positions in equal numbers.

“We are seeing positive shifts, and we’re seeing women have an even start [into the workforce],” says Denise Daniels, faith and work scholar, author, and current Wheaton College business professor, “but we don’t see that persisting over time. We’re not seeing the same level [of achievement from women] 20 or 30 years later.” 

Why is this the case? And as Christians, why should we care? 

In Genesis 1–2, Adam and Eve are invited into a common, shared mission: the care and development of the world. When God envisioned the role humankind would play in the world, he designed men and women to work together, in complement to each other, at every level: from the family home to the board room. Understanding the nuances of this complex partnership and the factors that keep any contributor from bringing his or her full self to work are essential to healthy, impactful organizations.

Beyond a theological perspective, Daniels says, the reasons why men and women don’t achieve at the same level professionally is complicated. Here, she comments on four contributing factors, and what she believes is needed for women starting their careers now, so they can play an equal role in reflecting God’s creativity through their careers.

Cultural Factors

Women are more likely than men to step out of the workforce for a time to raise a family, which can decrease what they achieve in their field, or at least alter their rate of advancement. “Many women want to step out, but on the other hand, culturally, it sometimes doesn’t feel like it is a choice,” Daniels says. “Dads say they want to step out too, but they don’t do it.” 

Daniels also sees that both male and female bosses tend to give women easier jobs, while men tend to get higher-risk/higher-reward opportunities. “They’re not doing it intentionally, but culturally, we tend to protect women more than men.”

Anxiety and Its Effect

Since Daniels began teaching in 1992, she says she’s seen a shift from majority men to majority women in her college courses. During that time period, women’s GPAs have also risen higher than men’s on average. In her own classes, she has noticed that the highest performing students are often women.  “But there is a dark side,” she says. “Sometimes this performance is driven by anxiety.” Women generally have higher levels of anxiety than men, so while they might be equally talented for a certain position, they don’t promote themselves as strongly as their male counterparts, which can impact the opportunities they are offered. “There is lots of data about how men get higher job offers, because women are less likely to negotiate,” Daniels says. “Men can more easily talk about what they are good at, while women are wondering if they are good enough.”

Building Networks

In contrast to women, who focus more strongly on classroom performance, male professionals often focus on building strong relational networks that fuel their career development. “[Men] tend to ‘goof off’ more, but what they end up doing is creating these networks that lead to longer term professional outcomes. It’s a looser way of achieving that leads to success in business,” Daniels says. “Men are not more effective nor more efficient than women in the workplace,” she continues. “Women’s relationships tend to be with neighbors or friends, and this doesn’t advantage them organizationally in the workforce.”

Daniels says in order to go against these tendencies, women should lean into what might be a little uncomfortable. If women find they are not getting invited to networking opportunities, “ask for an invitation,” she says.

“I was recently invited to Christian business leaders breakfast, and I was the only woman in the room,” Daniels remembers. “Get used to being the only woman in the room and just go.” For the next breakfast, she says she will invite another woman along. “Women can be critical of other women, so instead, be supportive of other women,” she says.

A Different Kind of Mentoring

Daniels says one way male business leaders can even the playing field is by being open to mentoring young female professionals. 

“If you ask men, they say they want it to be fair. But what tends to happen is that we get comfortable with people who are like us, and that perpetuates inequality.” She encourages male leaders to step out of their comfort zones and look for people who are different from themselves — to look for young women whom they can cultivate and encourage. 

She suggests they meet in public spaces, or in conference rooms with visible sight lines. And, “treat mentees equally,” she says. “If you are going to meet in a public space with women, you should also meet this same way with men.”

As women start their careers, Daniels advises they should try to cultivate healthy relationships wherever they can. “Do it because you are genuinely interested in other people, not because you are focused on finding a job,” she says. “Build your relationship with God and with other people who walk with Jesus, so that you can get discerning advice.”


Lydia Shoaf

Lydia is an intern with Denver Institute for Faith & Work, and a freelance writer and editor.