Women are famously more adept than men at interpreting social cues. Indeed, their decoding abilities may extend further, says Michael Greenstone, director of the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project, which is researching economic growth and equality.
“The labor market is sending a really, really clear signal: You've got to get more education,” he says. “To a large degree, women have responded, and men have not.”
Data from recent decades all point in one direction: Women are entering and graduating from college at greater rates than men. “Across industrialized economies, women are now — among younger cohorts — the more educated sex,” MIT economist David Autor told a recent conference on the job market. “And maybe that's the way it should always have been and will always be.”
Women's educational advances coincide with another major trend. After decades of increasing female participation in the workforce, the nation's working population is now half female. But women are still earning less — 77 cents for every dollar earned by a male, on average — in part because their educational advancement has yet to be widely felt. “The most common occupations for women are secretaries and administrative assistances, nurses and schoolteachers,” concluded a massive report by the liberal Center for American Progress last year. “Of the top 20 jobs for women, only nurses and schoolteachers required advanced degrees.”
Meanwhile, the higher-education gap between men and women remains sizable. In 2008, 34 percent of white females ages 25–34 had graduated college, versus 26 percent of men. Among African-Americans, 22 percent of women graduated, versus 16 percent of the men.
Among all young adults, 57 percent of the college graduates in 2008 were women and 43 percent were men.
Gender-based statistics, however, don't take social class and race into account.
“Overall, the differences between blacks and whites, rich and poor, dwarf the differences between men and women within any particular group,” Jacqueline King, director of the American Council on Education's Center for Policy Analysis, told The New York Times.
In a recent study, King found that Hispanic males have the lowest bachelor's degree attainment rate of all — 10 percent. Among Hispanic women, the rate is about 18 percent, roughly the same as for African-American women.
Other researchers studying barriers to higher education for young people from poor families argue that a gender gap coexists with economic and social obstacles.
“Young women are more likely than young men to enroll in and complete college in every major racial and ethnic group, with the largest gaps found among African-Americans,” three social policy experts wrote in a report for the Pew Charitable Trusts. “We should continue to explore the causes and consequences of the new gender gap in higher education and consider efforts that target the specific barriers and disincentives experienced by low-income boys.”
One effect of the gender gap is clear. In more than 51 percent of black households, working women earn as much as or more than their husbands. By comparison, about 36 percent of both Hispanic and white women earn more than their husbands.
The gender gap in higher education narrows toward the top of the socioeconomic ladder. Overall, 79 percent of children from the top-earning families go to college, and 53 percent graduate. At the lower end of the ladder, 34 percent enter college and only 11 percent graduate. “Family background is still a formidable barrier to earning a college degree as a way to increase economic mobility,” the Pew report concluded.
But even at top universities, whose students tend disproportionately to come from high-earning families, gender differences have emerged. At Harvard, 55 percent of women graduated with honors in 2006 compared with 50 percent of the men. In 2009, 13 percent of Harvard's female BA recipients graduated with high honors versus 10 percent of the men. Among nine BS degree recipients, the only graduate with highest honors (summa cum laude) was a woman.
In some professions, the female surge is extraordinary. In 1961, less than 6 percent of medical school graduates were women; by 2009, they represented fully half. Likewise, women make up about half of both U.S. law school enrollments and recipients of postgraduate degrees of all kinds.
But women's pay doesn't yet reflect the female educational surge. Women doctors earn 59 cents for every dollar paid to their male colleagues, and women lawyers make 77 cents to the male dollar. The wage differential largely reflects an oft-cited male-oriented bias in medicine and law, in which the main ages for demonstrating talent and dedication — one's 20s and 30s — coincide with women's peak child-bearing years.
Pay inequality may not last. And women's march into the workplace may be only beginning, said Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress. “If you look at those top 30 occupations that are estimated to create the most net new number of jobs,” she said, “nearly two-thirds of the workers that are currently in those jobs are women.”
— Peter Katel