Women rule, academically at least. That in-a-nutshell conclusion is one made by the authors of a new book. The book, "A Rise of Women," about why and how female students outperform males in education, is by co-authors Thomas DiPrete, a sociology professor at Columbia University, and Claudia Buchmann, a sociology professor at Ohio State University. The authors have some explaining to do in their work as they conclude just why women outpace men when it comes to education, yet earnings are still higher for the males.
The facts of why women are more likely than men to attend college, perform better academically while there and major in fields other than science, engineering, technology and mathematics are based in factors that affect students before they ever enter higher education – long before then in fact.
“We’ve seen astonishing change over a very short historical period,” says coauthor Thomas DiPrete. He points out that for people born around 1950, the male bachelor’s degree completion rate stayed stagnant for a number of years; in 1970 20 percent of men and just 14 percent of women completed college. Moving forward to 2010, women’s graduation rates “skyrocketed” to 36 percent, while conversely for men the graduation rate grew only seven points, to 27 percent. Today women outnumber men in college enrollment by a 1.4 to 1 ratio.
The authors explain that starting in kindergarten girls exhibit better social and behavioral skills in general than boys, and the authors believe that is related to girls’ higher on average grades at every stage of school, and conclude that too is why girls are more likely to earn a degree. The authors see the grade disparity as not so much a gap in ability, but one about effort. “It’s really more about effort and engagement in school,” says co-author Claudia Buchmann.
In addition, girls are more likely to say they like school and that good grades are important to them, therefore encouraging them to study more. For boys, their lower engagement rates in school seems to lead to reduced chances of getting through college, according to Buchmann.
Through their research, the authors discovered that for boys, schools that foster strong academic climates could make a difference, by setting high expectations. Buchmann suggests that schools need to motivate students to invest in their education so they can attain the big returns from a college degree that exist in the labor market today.
Boys historically have been trained to feel they do not have to follow the rules because men can drop out of high school and still earn wages equal to better-educated women. That may have been true in the past due to jobs in manufacturing or construction, but it just isn’t the case any longer. Author DiPrete says even today young men are “overly optimistic” about their chances of earning a livable salary even though less educated than women. This thinking may cause young men to not invest themselves enough in schoolwork, therefore lowering their academic performance and likelihood of completing college. DiPrete believes better guidance counseling is a way to tackle the motivation issue.
Separate Interests in Fields of Study
According to Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park, for students who do make it to college “The biggest problem for gender inequality among the college-educated remains the lack of gender integration across fields of study.” The book explains that it is the high school years, and not the college ones, where students begin separating in their choice of major. It is during these years that more women than men lose interest in the science and technology fields, although in college men and women completion rates are equal.
Professor Cohen explains that the education system may be to blame here, as women who attend high schools that emphasize STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) show greater interest in those major areas in college as well. “I would love to see that suggestion get more traction before we approach the idea of kids losing steam in college in America,” says Cohen.
DiPrete is working on research that shows women are much more interested in exploring other curricular areas, which may indicate lower chances of them going into STEM or similar fields. His findings suggest that understanding women’s broader educational goals might help programs modify their requirements so students could take a variety of classes while pursuing fields with more rigid curriculums.
While women hold almost half the jobs in the United States, less than 25 percent of those jobs are in STEM fields (according to the U.S. Department of Commerce). Even women who do study STEM fields in college often do not look for work in those areas after graduating.
Two thoughts emerge from these findings: DiPrete suggests that to increase attainment, postsecondary institutions could provide “clearer pathways” from college to the labor market to help students learn how to get the jobs or the college credentials they need. Currently, the United States has the highest college drop out rate in the industrialized world likely because students need better guidance.
Additionally, at all levels of education, schools could emphasize the benefits of a college degree separate from its economic ones. Improved health, more democratic engagement and higher job satisfaction are a few benefits that should be emphasized.
In 2011 working women earned just 82 percent of what men earned, up 20 percentage points from 30 years ago. That increase is partly due to women attaining more education and access to higher-paying executive positions, plus the internal motivation to get a degree as self-sufficiency insurance of sorts, to be able to make a middle-class income.
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