03/05/2012 03:34 pm ET Updated May 05, 2012

Women and Education: Making Inequity Visible

"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."
-Eleanor Roosevelt

The challenges of our slow economy have permeated the fabric of our society. In booming times of economic prosperity, we were free to believe in our dreams. But today, believing in one's dreams may be only a fantasy, especially for women. Today's woman is not only faced with many barriers -- fewer educational opportunities, lower wage prospects, higher unemployment numbers -- but she is also faced with a tangible lack of resources.

In March, Otterbein University, the institution that I lead, will host a summit entitled "Women and The New American Dream." This summit will focus on the challenges that hinder women's leadership and the solutions that can help to empower the next generation of women leaders.

Better opportunities for women start with education. In Ohio, less than one in four women have a bachelor's degree. Ohio ranks 39th out of 50 states for the percentage of women with four or more years of college, according to the American Community Survey three-year estimates. Statistics forAfrican-American women are even worse. Less than 15 percent of African American women 25 and older have earned a bachelor's degree or higher in Ohio.

There is a direct correlation between educational attainment and poverty. Despite women losing 83.8 percent of the public positions eliminated between July 2009 and January 2011, The National Women's Law Center found the hardest hit demographic remains women without a high school diploma. Roughly 15 percent of all women without a high school diploma are unemployed, according to the Department of Labor. The unemployment rate of women who hold a bachelor's degree is 4.7 percent. We must do a better job of informing women about the benefits of an education and providing them access to achieve their academic goals.

But even when women achieve their academic goals, the workplace doesn't reward them with adequate pay. In Ohio, women are worth only 74 cents to a man's dollar, according to a report issued by the Central Ohio Leadership Census. That places Ohio 35th nationally. And of the 11 million Americans who earned $100,000 or more between 2006-2008, only 302,000 individuals achieved that level of income in Ohio. Less than 1.8 percent of women who worked full time achieved that level of pay compared to 7.6 percent of men. It is shameful and disturbing that our society continues to discriminate against and devalue the contributions made by women.

Such unexamined prejudice also contributes to the fact that women and girls are now the majority of individuals living in poverty in every state, including the District of Columbia. More than ever before, women and their families are showing up at local food pantries and struggling to make ends meet. We must confront the reality of 850,000 women and girls across this state who experience regular food insecurity and are unsure when -- and whether -- there will be a next meal.

How can higher education acknowledge and advocate for change? How can higher education play a thoughtful and constructive role in improving the life circumstances of women and girls? I believe that it is our responsibility to speak. It is our responsibility to address the structural inequities that challenge and undermine women, for it is through meaningful community partnerships and educational opportunities that we build capacities for women and girls to flourish.

There is no doubt that the time for such work is now. Otterbein University is not a bystander. Higher education cannot be a bystander. We must commit to the hard conversations and collective action that will make a real difference for women and girls. Otterbein's regional summit willhelp us imagine a different future, a future in which women and girls enjoy genuine economic and social mobility, enhanced opportunities for personal and professional growth, and the authority to help lead us in the direction of a more just and democratic world.

Kathy Krendl ispresident at Otterbein University in Westerville, OH. Otterbein will host the Women and the New American Dream summit March 9-10 in Westerville, OH.