How Girls in Blue-Collar Communities Are Being Left Behind

Schools often offer vocational classes at the expense of advanced courses, which can leave young women with few options.

Patrick T. Fallon / AP

National debate about where students should go after they finish high school generally favors college as the path to success. Yet several states have ramped up vocational training in the past several years in an attempt to equip kids with enough skills to land decent-paying jobs right after they pick up their diplomas.

In 2013, Texas made graduation requirements that had previously emphasized college readiness friendlier to vocational education, now typically called career-and-technical education, or CTE. Michigan and Louisiana have also strengthened programs intended to prepare students for lucrative blue-collar jobs. And a bipartisan group in Congress recently backed a bill that would give states more flexibility in how they develop CTE.

While there’s fierce discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of promoting career training in high schools, largely overlooked is whether such training affects girls differently than boys. But according to a new study spearheaded by a sociologist at Cornell University and set to be published in the August issue of the American Sociological Review, high-school training in blue-collar communities disadvantages women.

April Sutton and her co-authors, Amanda Bosky and Chandra Muller from the University of Texas at Austin, found that high schools in blue-collar communities often offer vocational training in response to the needs of the local labor market. That by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but schools often focus on vocational or technical training at the expense of advanced math and other courses that are designed to prepare students to succeed in college.

When those college-prep courses are superseded by vocational classes, both young men and women are, predictably, less likely to enroll in a four-year college. Young men seem to fare just fine when this happens. They frequently take the vocational courses that are offered and find jobs in industries like construction or oil that pay well, sometimes even more than work requiring a four-year college degree.

But young women who grow up in blue-collar communities often don’t enroll in those kinds of vocational classes, and end up waiting tables and stocking shelves, or out of work altogether after graduation. In the past, women from blue-collar communities sometimes took business-related vocational courses that served as a pathway to decent-paying clerical work. But those jobs have largely disappeared, while fields typically dominated by men, such as auto-repair and construction, remain.

The “assumption that both men and women would equally benefit” when vocational training is offered is not accurate, Sutton said.

While schools don’t bar girls from taking welding or maritime courses, traditional gender roles were staunchly maintained during my own visits to schools offering career-and-technical programs in Texas, Colorado, and Nevada over the last year. Girls were overwhelmingly concentrated in cosmetology and childcare courses. Hairdressers typically earn less than $30,000 a year. Childcare workers earn only $20,320, on average. Both auto mechanics and welders, on the other hand, pull in north of $40,000.

Shaun M. Dougherty, a professor at the University of Connecticut who was not involved in the study but has followed career-and-technical education closely, said he’s heard from young women who are interested in pursuing something like auto mechanics and have an aptitude for the work, but opt out of such training in high school because the field has traditionally been dominated by men, and persistent gender stereotypes remain.

All of this has helped lead to employment and wage gaps between men and women that are particularly entrenched in blue-collar communities. As they studied these gaps, the authors found the widest chasms between young men and women who attended high school in blue-collar communities, which tend to be concentrated in the Southeast and Midwest. Men between the ages of 25 and 28 who worked blue-collar jobs made $17.20 an hour in 2011, while women made just $13.40, or 78 percent of what men earned. Men in white-collar jobs earned an average of $24.68 an hour, where women earned $21.26, or 86 percent of what men made. Women and men of the same ages in service industries earned much less, around $14 an hour, but the wage gap was virtually nonexistent.

When women do manage to land blue-collar jobs, which tend to be male-dominated, they often face resistance from male coworkers and are sometimes trapped in lower-paying positions, the report points out. Anecdotal evidence suggests that men from these communities have greater access than their female peers to informal networks and apprenticeships that lead to blue-collar careers.

Sutton and her co-authors didn’t dig into whether race plays a role in exacerbating these disparities, but data indicates black and Latino students are more likely to attend schools that lack advanced courses. Other studies indicate that wage gaps are disproportionately high for black and Latino women, all of which may suggest that black and Latino girls are the most negatively affected.

As states reevaluate and, in several cases, beef up blue-collar training, Sutton suggested that they “not do so at the expense of academic coursework that prepares them for college.” Something like welding, she argued, should not count toward advanced-math and foreign-language requirements. The study “suggests that may heighten gender inequality” in the workforce, she said.

Dougherty agrees that all students should have access to college-prep courses, but added that he’s encouraged by the growth of new blue-collar work and training that appears to be more equitable in terms of gender. Health services, he said, is a field that offers decent-paying blue-collar work that seems to appeal to both men and women. While such industries are growing in places like Houston, however, they don’t necessarily have a foothold in blue-collar communities that have long relied on agriculture and other very gender-divided fields. But where economies have diversified, training seems to have followed suit.

Steve DeWitt, the deputy executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education, agrees. “CTE today has to be about academics as well,” he said. While DeWitt said he found the study “interesting and pretty thorough,” he did point out that it relied on the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, a nationally representative study of high-school sophomores. In the nearly 15 years since then, he said, he thinks what has traditionally been viewed as vocational education, say auto repair, has integrated with academics so that a similar course today might be called auto tech, and rely heavily on advanced math. “I think there’s still a lot of misperceptions about CTE,” he said. But he also acknowledged that there are a number of communities across the country that are reluctant to modernize what may be very gender-divided vocational programs because, for now, they are filling the needs of the local economy.

So while career-and-technical education may be becoming more equitable, and while women now actually outpace men in college enrollment, girls who go to high school in blue-collar communities are often still left behind, less able to access college-prep classes that pave the way to a bachelor’s degree, and less likely to benefit from vocational training that would lead to a sustainable future.