Who can attend a women’s college? While it may seem like the answer is obvious—women can go to a college for women—these institutions of higher learning continually face the challenge of defining who qualifies as a woman. Is a woman defined by her sex? Gender identity? Legal status? Must a woman’s sex/gender/legal status align or can they differ?
Institutions such as women’s colleges depend on the use of gender categories in order to define their very existence—they need to be able to somehow determine who a “woman” is in order to be a college for women. As gender is increasingly understood to be fluid and socially constructed rather than a stable biological fact, however, being able to define who a woman is becomes increasingly more difficult. Consequently, with new ideas of who a woman is, these colleges now must find new ways to define the “woman” in the “women’s college.”
Despite growing support for gender parity in the workforce, many occupations still continue to be comprised of mostly men or mostly women. Because women-dominated occupations tend to be accompanied by less pay and prestige, the persistence of occupational gender segregation in the U.S. labor market helps reinforce gender inequality more broadly.
A number of prominent theories in the social sciences have attempted to explain the endurance of this segregation by pointing to the work-family nexus. Many such theories assert that women who plan to have children incorporate anticipated caregiving responsibilities into their initial selection of occupations, tending to choose women-dominated fields assumed to be more flexible than men-dominated fields. Men who anticipate families, on the other hand, choose men-dominated fields assumed to maximize lifetime earnings and be conducive to a provider role.