Study highlights obstacles for females in higher ed

Jessica Pauly and Stevie Munz presented as part of the Roots of Knowledge Speaker Series in September. (File photo / Lilly Van Buren)

Female students expressed their uncertainty about obtaining a higher education, and in some cases regarded education as a “backup” plan, according to a recent UVU study by professors Jessica Pauly and Stevie Munz.

Pauly and Munz presented their study this fall at the Roots of Knowledge lecture series, and were concerned with the answers received. Their study asked female UVU students what education meant to them. 

“A man’s supposed to have a higher degree than the woman, well supposed to, have more than the woman has,” an anonymous female student in the interview portion of the study said. “So probably getting a bachelor’s would not be the best thing.”

Munz said many women in the study expressed feeling like they couldn’t further their education because they wouldn’t be a good mom if they were in school. 

“Women are rarely asked about their experiences, so the story they tell is one that’s been told to them about their identity,” said Munz, who has a doctorate in communication studies. “We empower one gender over another to pursue an education, where we talk about the other gender as only pursuing motherhood.”

“I’m disappointed, but not surprised,” said communication major Lindsay Bishop after attending the presentation. “Outside of this culture, women don’t get married until [they’re] 30 years old, so they’re more likely to get educated. I fall into the category of coming back to school after first being married with kids. I know how much I’ve benefited from being at school, and I would love other women to experience the empowerment of being at school.”

Munz and Pauly described how stereotypes can become the only story out there, and that this narrative is so tight and sealed in layers–it will keep going on if we don’t change something.

“The words we use are so important,” said Pauly, who has a doctorate in organizational communication. “Changing the narrative means asking women why they’re studying what they’re studying. A degree is more than about attaining a degree. You’re changing as a human being.”

Both researchers started to see a strong theme arise in powerful and vivid detail over and over again. Ten out of 60 interviewees specifically mentioned the words “backup plan,” or “fallback” when talking about their education. Munz said the saturation data was so strong, they couldn’t not talk about it. 

One question in the interview asked students to name influential women, and it was difficult for participants to name anyone. Munz said this should be startling, especially since the president of this school is a woman.

Pauly said women need a space to talk about their success since they’re taught to not talk about themselves from a young age. She said we can do better at listening to what female UVU students want to accomplish, and help them reach that dream.

The Women’s Success Center at UVU is a space of advocacy and support for women pursuing a higher education. For more information about the Women’s Success Center, visit their website.

“We believe we have to be more intentional in the way we talk about women,” said Munz. “Women belong in the classroom, they’re smart and can achieve anything they want to.”

To watch Pauly and Munz’s research presentation, click here.

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