Why Degree Inflation Hits Women Workers Hardest

Photograph by Darrin Klimek

A college degree is increasingly required for even the most entry-level jobs, as reported in a widely discussed article in the New York Times Wednesday morning. What’s glossed over is the impact of this “degree inflation” on women.

As the piece points out, the increasing demand among employers for a bachelor’s degree applies to all sorts of administrative positions, including secretaries, receptionists, paralegals, and clerks. All of these jobs have traditionally been held by women: Women make up around 96 percent of secretaries and administrative workers. And admin jobs offer—or used to offer—one of the best paths to a middle-class income for women without college diplomas.

One woman I interviewed, Keri Crump, 37, who was in the process of looking for work as an executive assistant in New York, said that after many years in the field, she was suddenly encountering obstacles to finding a job due to her lack of a college degree. “There are a lot of executive assistants who have been doing this for years who were laid off during the financial downturn, and they’re coming across this requirement,” Crump said. “Some of them are in their 40s, they’ve raised families. They started out of high school and have built up to the higher $90,000-a-year range. And now they’re being told they need to have a bachelor’s degree.” (That’s the high end of the pay range for some executive secretaries in Manhattan. A 2011 survey (pdf) of 3,376 office admins by the International Association of Administrative Professionals found a median annual salary of $45,000.)

Not only has degree inflation made getting those jobs harder; there’s added pressure from the fact that many such jobs are disappearing altogether. In a 2011 paper for the Roosevelt Institute called “Women Laid Off, Workers Sped Up: Support Staff Hold a Clue to the Gendered Recovery,” authors Bryce Covert and Mike Konczal point out that women lost 925,000 jobs in “office and administrative support” occupations between 2009 and 2011. “Employees are much more likely to book their own travel and schedule meetings,” they write. “Meanwhile, traditional administrative duties may change into higher-level work dealing with budgets and larger projects that will require more advanced training.”

It’s worth contemplating the long-term ramifications as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. The book helped launch the modern feminist movement, which helped push women into white collar jobs in the first place.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.