In 1840, Catherine Brewer Benson became the first American woman to graduate from college, gaining a bachelor’s degree from what is now Wesleyan College in Georgia. Nine years later, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American woman to earn a medical degree. But women remained a small minority in U.S. higher education well into the 20th century, concentrated in single-sex and teachers’ colleges and a rarity in prestigious professional schools.
All that has changed over the past generation. In 1981-82, women for the first time outnumbered men in bachelor’s degrees awarded. Now, for full-time students in four-year schools, women’s graduation rates surpass men’s by 7 percentage points. They finish college faster and get better grades. Today, they comprise nearly 60 percent of undergraduates and graduate students in the arts and sciences; in medicine and law schools, women are only slightly less common than men. Among low-income, minority, and older students, women dominate the class rolls; community colleges struggle to recruit and keep qualified men on campuses that may be 3-to-1 female.
Meet Camille Sabino, the 20-year-old daughter of Filipino immigrants. She’s excelling at the University of Arizona, where 52 percent of the students are women. She is majoring in management-information systems—a male-dominated and highly technical field—but is far from intimidated. “I see a lot of men who aren’t reading the newspaper, aren’t aware of what’s going on with the world, aren’t doing much with their lives,” she said.
Sabino’s academic success raises two questions: Why do women perform so much better in school than their male classmates? And why hasn’t this academic prowess translated into higher earnings for women than for men? The answer to the first question, it turns out, may supply the answer to the second.
Now that almost 30 years have elapsed since women began their educational climb, it’s hard to argue that the solution is patience. For full-time, year-round workers who were 25 and older in 2009, men with a bachelor’s degree earned a median $62,440, versus $46,830 for women, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Men with only a high school degree earned more than women with an associate’s degree, and men with an associate’s degree earned more than women with a bachelor’s. Women with a master’s degree earned less, on average, than men with only a B.A.
Why this stubborn gap? As students enter the working world, the disparity doesn’t show up right away. Right out of college, women tend to best the men in the job hunt, just as Sabino confidently predicts for herself. “Young, single, college-educated women without children earn pretty close to what their male counterparts do—even more in some cities,” said Nancy Folbre, an economist at the University of Massachusetts.
But later, things change. A lot of the problem, experts say, lies in the complexities of child-rearing. “Women tend to take time out of paid employment to care for children and other family members,” Folbre explained. “In fact, I think women try harder to get a college education precisely so that they can make the family commitments they care about and also make a decent salary.”
Career paths, especially in higher-paying, formerly male-dominated fields, are often timed in ways that make it harder to bear children, according to Mary Ann Mason, a University of California (Berkeley) law professor who was the first woman to serve as the school’s graduate dean. In academia, she pointed out, tenure isn’t granted until well into an aspiring professor’s 30s, toward the end of a woman’s childbearing years. Lawyers trying to make partner, doctors completing their residencies, and MBAs climbing the corporate ladder face similar obstacles.
It may be in anticipation of this dilemma that so many college women still choose historically female, relatively underpaid—and flat—careers. In the 1970s and early 1980s, women made great inroads into traditionally male-dominated college majors such as business and science, according to research conducted by Paula England, a New York University sociologist. But since then, their progress has halted. Undergraduate majors and fields of Ph.D. study “continue to be very sex-segregated,” England said. “Women are still going into majors that lead to jobs that don’t pay as well.”
This squares with what Sabino sees. “Out of all my girlfriends, I’m the only actual business major,” she said. “A lot of my friends are sociology, anthropology, education, psychology, communications.” In 2009-10, five times as many undergraduate men as women majored in engineering, the discipline that pays the most to recent graduates. Four times as many women as men majored in education and seven times as many in social work—among the lowest-paying majors. Both of these professions tend to require master’s degrees, which helps explain why females with a master’s earn less, on average, than males with a bachelor’s.
This article appears in the March 13, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.