Whether you’ve recently graduated or are working toward it, anxieties about finding a job can often loom in the background. This is true regardless of major — you’ve probably asked how your degree can help you land a job, especially in an economy impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Times are particularly tough for new graduates, specifically for women and people of color. Understanding why that is and how you can overcome it can help you navigate fields riddled with inequity and disparities, and advocate for fair treatment.
Entering the workforce today
Rebecca Kreitzer, an associate public policy professor at UNC, studies inequity in policy and politics, and provides insight into the disadvantages college students and new graduates face as they enter the workforce. The issue, she explains, can start during your undergraduate years.
“Unpaid internships and volunteer research are mechanisms to help people get jobs, but one problem is that these opportunities is unpaid,” Kreitzer said.
Not all students have the time or resources to provide unpaid labor, but often need the experience to open doors later. The economic downturn associated with the pandemic only exacerbates this problem.
UNC graduate Celia McRae can attest to this.
“There was at least one summer where I worked multiple jobs because I needed a job that was paid, but also wanted the experience I would get from another job that was unpaid,” McRae said.
McRae is in her second year of law school at Duke, but she didn’t decide on law school until the end of her senior year, she said.
“I think part of the reason I initially considered grad school was because I wasn’t confident about meaningful job opportunities post-grad,” she said.
Kreitzer also notes that the job market is historically bad right now — in fact, it’s reminiscent of the 2008 recession. It’s difficult for students to find jobs that relate to their degree because there’s “a mismatch” between available jobs and the skills graduates hold.
“This leaves graduates at the mercy of employers,” she said.
After graduating in May 2021, UNC alumna Anna DePollo says she faced countless rejections in the form of silence. Dozens of applications were met with no response.
“It really takes a toll on you physically and mentally," she said. "You start to question yourself and your worth. You start to get frustrated and sometimes you start to believe you actually are not qualified for anything you are applying for."
She now works in a clinical psychology lab and is preparing to get her master's degree in social work.
The underlying issue
College students that lack experience in the workforce are often low on options and unable to demand things like better wages and working conditions once they make a space for themselves.
But the underlying issue, however, is inequality. People of color and women are at particular disadvantages when they seek fairness in their employment prospects.
“There is a long history of women being unaccounted for in how we conceptualize the formal labor market,” Kreitzer said.
Women, and women of color in particular, are likely to be a part of the informal labor market, which includes tasks like caretaking. This fosters both racial and gendered segregation in the workforce, which makes it even more difficult to untangle issues of inequality, such as equal pay.
Kreitzer points out that the pay gap has not significantly decreased in the last forty years, and the gap widens when you compare pay inequities across races. Higher education is a prime example. Kreitzer’s expertise comes from both her research and her experiences as an accomplished woman in academia.
“There’s a respect gap when it comes to race and gender in higher education,” she said.
Young women often find themselves negotiating with older men, and many power differences come into play that results in the young hire feeling powerless. You can see everywhere that women and people of color are underrepresented.
Kreitzer explains that when more men enter a field, such as teaching, nursing or the humanities, the pay goes up. The alternative is true when women enter traditionally male fields, such as engineering or research – the salaries drop. This creates challenges in retaining faculty of color and women, especially at universities where inequities are magnified across the disciplines.
"Inequality gets reproduced when jobs that have higher pay also have better working conditions and things like generous paid and family leave policies," she said. "People who are part-time or don’t have full employment in the labor market don’t have access to the same worker protections.”
As discouraging as this news is, here are some ways we can make our workplaces more fair and equitable:
Advocate for pay transparency. Then, create it.
Although most workplaces don’t have pay transparency, this is a policy we should support.
“Companies have a disincentive to provide this information,” Kreitzer said. “That’s why we need policy to mandate it.”
Comprehensive pay transparency has the potential to alleviate racial and gender inequality in the workforce by making any discrepancies more obvious to employees. But without this information, it’s difficult to negotiate for ourselves. As individuals, we can and should be more open about our pay.
“When you get a job, you should chat with coworkers about pay,” Kreitzer said.
Not only does this destigmatize discussions about earnings, but it equips people with the facts and data they need to build confidence and negotiate for better wages and working conditions. When interviewing, having data you can speak to serves a similar purpose in salary negotiations.
Uplift others — and yourself.
In this unnecessarily competitive workforce, it’s crucial that you advocate for yourself. Don’t be afraid to “clout chase” – use social media to promote yourself, your skills and your work. It’s likely that few others will do it for you, so don’t be afraid to appear boastful.
“I think the hardest thing for me post-grad was learning how to really sell myself, both in my resume and in job interviews,” said McRae. “That doesn’t come super easily to me, and in conversations with some of my friends it seems like it’s something a lot of younger women and people entering the workforce or grad school also struggle with.”
Similarly, uplift other young professionals in your industry. Creating networks of aid and inspiration can be the difference between feeling completely lost and totally supported.
“What has been my biggest help is networking and connections,” said DePollo. “Almost every job that I have received an interview for is due to having a connection, whether that is direct or indirect.”
These steps can’t begin to untangle the longstanding inequities and disadvantages against marginalized groups in the workforce – but they can help us, as individuals, create more clear pathways to success.
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