Understanding the Gender Gap in Utah Higher Education: Qualitative Findings

Utah has one of the highest levels of gender inequality in higher education in the United States. For example, only 9.3% of Utah women over 25 years old have earned an advanced degree (higher than a bachelor’s degree), compared to 14.1% of men. It is unfortunate since education is associated with many positive outcomes, including financial security and higher quality of life. To understand this gender disparity, we collected quantitative and qualitative data from Utah women to examine their challenges, goals, and access to resources while pursuing higher education. The first brief, reported quantitative results from an online survey. This brief, the second and final of the series, reports qualitative results from in-depth interviews of Utah women enrolled in college or graduate school. 

Study Background 

A total of 23 participants completed interviews in the spring of 2022. During the interview, participants were asked about their demographic, personal, and family background. Additionally, they were asked about their educational journey, their motivation for pursuing a college/graduate degree, the challenges they have faced, and the resources they have utilized. We also asked about participants’ career and life goals. Although limited in generalizability, the interviews provide rich data about individuals’ lived experience and corroborate our previous survey results. 

Educational Aspirations and Life Goals 

Participants described education as something they are doing for themselves and as a life priority. For most, personal goals—including helping the community and/or engaging in a job that they enjoy—were a key factor in deciding to go to college. 

Relationship Influences 

As participants discussed people who had influenced their educational journey, three key groups emerged: family, spouses or partners, and professors. 

  • Family: Undergraduate students identified family members (i.e., parents and grandparents) as having the greatest influence on their decision to attend college. Graduate students also mentioned their family’s lack of understanding around academic life because their parents did not have graduate education. They said that their parents were concerned about their present and future financial security 
  • Spouse or Partner: Many women in our sample were married. Some participants mentioned their spouses or partners were supportive of their educational pursuits. 
  • Professors: More than family, many professors inspired graduate participants to pursue education and supported them in their program. Participants mentioned professors who helped build their confidence and make connections in areas they felt passionate about. 

Religious and Cultural Influences 

Many Latter-day Saint participants noted that their families (husbands and children) and their faith were important factors in their educational trajectories. A few had previously left an undergraduate degree and later re-enrolled. None of the non-Latter-day Saint women had such experiences. In addition, some Latter-day Saint women, unlike their non-Latter-day Saint counterparts, said that they would consider having a child during their program. Their personal stories—as well as those of their mothers and people they know—illustrated how their education is influenced by family values and gendered expectations. 

  • Education and Family Formation: Some Latter-day Saint participants spoke about going to college as an opportunity to find a husband. When confronted with that stereotype, one undergraduate student found it “degrading” but nonetheless true. Latter-day Saint participants noted that they had seen it in their community. 
  • Gendered Expectations: Participants identified ways that men and women experience education differently. They spoke of challenges that women face in the institutions of education and the labor market. Participants mentioned stereotypes around gender and skill, the motherhood penalty, childcare, and the gender pay gap. 
  • Motherhood and Education - Conflicts and Negotiations: It was common for education-driven Latter-day Saint students to clarify that family and faith come first even when prioritizing education. Some participants questioned how mothers are judged for prioritizing work or school obligations when fathers are not. 

Challenges 

Ultimately, all students valued education and saw it as a tool that would allow them to accomplish personal goals. Still, most of the participants mentioned challenges they faced during their higher education, including mental health, underrepresentation, work and family responsibilities, and other risk factors for leaving their programs. 

  • Mental Health: Most interviewees spoke about facing mental health concerns (e.g., depression, anxiety) during their time in higher education. 
  • Underrepresentation: Interviewees spoke about challenges related to their identities in terms of gender, race, and sexual orientation. 
  • Work and Family Responsibilities: Balancing family life with school expectations was challenging for all mother participants. One international graduate student described facing major stressors during her graduate study. 
  • Risk Factors for Leaving Higher Education: When asked about the prospect of leaving their programs, undergraduates identified financial concerns, time management, and personal circumstances as possible reasons to leave. 

Conclusions and Recommendations 

This study illustrates that multiple factors affect Utah women in higher education, including family relationships and responsibilities, cultural norms and expectations, and other challenges such as financial needs and mental health. Even while valuing and pursuing higher education, many women struggled to balance multiple roles and gendered expectations. For example, some women see education and career aspirations as incongruent with family life. However, raising a family and obtaining a higher education are not necessarily exclusive choices. In fact, more than one in five college students have child(ren) according to recent national data. Evidence shows that college completion is beneficial at the individual (e.g., financial and emotional well-being), family (e.g., financial security, family stability), and state level (e.g., reducing a state-wide gender gap in education and wage). Our findings, along with prior research, suggest that Utah women need to be empowered and supported by their families, institutions (e.g., school, employer, church), and the culture to make their own informed decisions. 

Combined with the results from our first brief, our findings provide a clearer picture of what factors influence the gender gap in Utah higher education. We would like to emphasize that any efforts and interventions to address the issue of gender disparity in higher education need to be sensitive to the institutional and cultural context in which Utah women make decisions to go to college or graduate school. As we understand more about women’s decisions and broaden awareness about the benefits of higher education, we can foster a supportive environment for women’s education within families and communities, then translate that support into higher graduation rates among women. 

To learn more about the gender gap in higher education, read the full brief.

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November 2022 Newsletter

The November 2022 Newsletter for the Utah Women & Leadership Project highlights new resources released, editorials, and announcements about women's groups and partnerships.