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Women graduating

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | May 26, 2011

It’s the season of graduation in America and, increasingly, that means it’s the season of women, too. This year, about 3 women will get their B.A. degrees for every 2 men who do. About 50 years ago, the ratio was about 2 men to every 1 woman. In a society that treats a college degree as the ticket to the middle class and the certificate of achievement, this gender reversal is a social revolution.

Female Graduate

(Stern College)

The trend has been noticed. There have been panicky magazine stories and books (e.g., The War Against BoysWhy Boys Fail). Did the women’s movement, designed to establish equality, push the pendulum too far, spark a war against boys, and undermine men, as some suggest? Or, have schoolgirls adjusted to a changing world faster than have boys? Why does the class of 2011 look so different than the class of 1961?

The Reversal

Back in the early days of college-going, when few Americans went beyond high school, there was a modest difference in favor of men. Then, as college-going expanded, it did so mainly for men. The graph below, copied from a 2006 paper by economic historian Claudia Goldin and her colleagues, shows the proportion of Americans, by sex, who had graduated from college by the time they were 35 – arranged by the year they were born. Among Americans born in the 1880s and ‘90s, few completed college and graduation rates were about 50% greater for men. (The women in those cohorts who graduated largely got teaching degrees.) College-going became much more common for those born after the mid-1920s. By the time Americans born in the 1940s were graduating in the 1960s, men were more than twice as likely to get degrees as were women. And then the gap closed fast. The class of 1980 had about an equal number of men and women. Now, it’s about 60:40 women tossing the mortarboards.

College Graduation Rates by Gender

What Happened?

What explains this inversion? Whatever it is, by the way, is not peculiar to the U.S.; this reveral is common across the western world. Various scholars, including Goldin, and sociologists such as Tom DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann, point to several explanations, to changes that probably reinforced one another. We’ll look at a few.

But, first, let’s acknowledge a basic fact: For generations, girls have done better than boys at school. While we can debate whether there are inherent cognitive differences between the sexes, it is clear that girls go into school with skills and habits better suited to doing well at school: self-control, paying attention, not getting into trouble, eagerness to learn, and so on. The boy-girl difference in these habits grows over the years in school. The difference was not new in the 1970s and ‘80s. What was new was that high school girls started taking more college-prep classes, including hard math and science classes, and that girls in college persisted longer than boys, getting to that B.A. degree more often.

Given their long-standing advantage in school, why did girls then outpace the boys in college graduation only after the 1970s? Here are some answers:

They Responded to a New Job Market. The economy changed after the 1950s and ‘60s. There was increasing demand for workers with school-like skills – good reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, and analytical abilities – the skills girls were especially good at. (The demand for muscle and physical endurance on assembly lines, the jobs that men without college used to get well-paid to do, plummeted.) The message that there were good opportunities trickled down to high school girls; they seized those opportunities by beefing up their course work, delaying marriage, going to college, and persisting to the degree. In 1970, more than half of working women aged 30-34, worked as teachers, but by 2000, only one-fifth did. A wider world of jobs had opened up.

They Responded to the Decline of Discrimination and Discouragement. With the social changes of the 1970s, the discrimination and discouragement that women faced decreased. This made pursuing college a more attractive and more sensible course for them. (A story: In 1965, I overheard an eminent and well-meaning professor answer a young coed’s question about whether she should apply to his department’s graduate program. She could, he said, but he cautioned her: The faculty admitted few women to the Ph.D. program because they had found that many women dropped out to marry. With advice like that, not to mention the messages they got in high school, many girls would, of course, shelve their career aspirations. It is hard to imagine that the same professor would have given her the same answer in 1985.) Notably, women from less advantaged backgrounds experienced the greatest leap in college-going. Unlike women with highly-educated parents, they benefitted most from changing expectations. The “good” girl now was not the one who married as soon as possible, but the one who got her B.A. first.

* They Responded to Greater Risks. The period when women overtook men in college graduation was also a period of growing turmoil in family life – later marriage, higher divorce rates, stagnation in men’s wages. Girls in the 1970s and ‘80s, according to this explanation, got the message that finding Mr. Right was no guarantee of security. If you’ll need to take care of yourself before and even after marriage, and there’s a good chance you will, you’d better have the credentials. Nor was it enough to go to college, as the joke went in the 1960s, to get an “Mrs.” degree; a B.A. was necessary. A student of mine, Sarah Ovink, recently finished a dissertation on the college gender gap among Latino youth. Many of the girls, more than the boys, she studied got the message from their parents that they had better secure their futures by earning a diploma. Life was too precarious.

Other factors may also be involved in the reversal. There is some evidence, for example, that the gender gap is widening in part because boys growing up without fathers or with poorly-educated (and thus, poorly-employed) fathers have fallen behind in the college race. Something about failing male role models may be contributing. Then, there is the advent of the birth control pill in the 1960s which allowed young women to avoid unwanted pregnancies, delay marriage, and plan families – all of which would make pursuing careers more practical.

Researchers are still trying to untangle the complicated and concatenated influences that led to the college reversal. What is not likely to be part of the explanation is a “war” against boys or men. The expansion of women’s claims to rights certainly might be felt that way by men who end up sidelined, say, male applicants to medical school who lose out to women. But the fact that many more women than men will march across the graduation stage this season has deeper roots, going back to who can focus on learning their ABC’s.

Implications? The implications of this development for gender relations and marriages could be profound — and could be the topic of a separate post. During much of the last half-century, American marriages became more and more homogenous, notably because college graduates increasingly married one another [pdf]. Women found that they could get a diploma and a husband. (It used to be that women with college degrees were less likely to marry than those without; now they are more likely to marry.) We may be entering a new, quite different era of heterogeneous marriages, with wives typically having degrees and their husbands not — with who knows what ramifications — if they even marry.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Women graduating

  1. The Earnings of Women and Men One Year after College Graduation explores the earnings difference between female and male college graduates who are working full time one year after graduation.

  2. So a Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley thinks it is acceptable to ignore gender equity in education. As long as it is boys on the “losing” side.

    Does that make for a more democratic and just society?


    “What is not likely to be part of the explanation is a “war” against boys or men.”

    So wait?

    “that the gender gap is widening in part because boys growing up without fathers”

    In “war” against boys the media is lambasting the image of men, boys grow up without fathers and don’t have any role models. So you don’t agree that the media is hurting the image of men as role models (ie main argument in “war” against boys)? But you do agree that growing up without a male role model is one cause? what?


    “What is not likely to be part of the explanation is a “war” against boys or men.”

    Yeah your employer (UC Berkley) is one of the main creators of the feminist propaganda that has “swung the pendulum too far” through victim hood based legislation in academia and government. So yeah how could you agree that you’re employer is to fault through all their righteousness and apparent doo goodieness you people walked the western world into a circle all the while creating twice as many wage slaves. GOOD FREAKIN JOB!

  4. Relative to this new “ratio” where more women graduate from college than men, it’s time to start asking ourselves:
    “What Kind Of A Future Are We Creating For Our Descendants?”

    The nice thing about this new “ratio” is that women are more likely to ask this question, and they are also more likely to act on guaranteeing a higher quality of life for future generations than men have been failing to do.

    I am also hoping that women dominate the sciences, because that’s where we must focus to make the right things happen to prevent global warming calamities before the end of this century.

    IPCC and IAEA failures prove that men just haven’t been focusing on the future because we are failing to protect the future that is in increasingly grave danger.

    Men did great with the first American revolution but Democracy has bas been failing rapidly with the latest gaggles of male politicians, proving that a new, peaceful American Revolution v.21C is necessary with women getting the job done this time now that the “ratio” has changed in humanity’s favor.

  5. Of course, those claiming there’s been a “war against the men” who are up in arms at more women earning degrees might still be missing a huge point; once we have these degrees, the men are still going to be paid more for the same work in all but a few places in the US (see: Although having more degrees amongst women has made it so in some areas women without children earn more on average than men, this is comparing women with degrees to men without. When you look at women and men with the same level of education, men make more. Men also don’t face wage stagnation or potential job loss when they have children as often as women face these problems. And this is just an economic issue. The social, cultural, and political issues that still place women at a disadvantage are many.

    While I certainly don’t want to see young men fail and have a harder time succeeding in school, I really do not see that anyone should be upset that girls and young women do succeed, especially given that the end result is still far short of placing women equal to men, much less men having to reach the level of women.

  6. Prof. Fischer,

    Thanks for this piece. It’s interesting but it seems to be missing the obvious question. It is not women’s participation rates that need to be explained, but men’s. Goldin’s curve for women is is almost monotonic (it always goes up) while the men’s curve is going up and down. What’s that about?

    Knowing little about the topic, here’s my off-the-cuff theory. The growth of participation rates is constrained by population growth and the number of college slots available. Note that men’s participation rate drop off for those men born at the beginning of the baby boom and, about 25 years later, at the beginning of the baby boom echo.

    In those periods, the growth of available slots does not keep up with the growth of population in college-aged people, so some students get pushed out. Interestingly, it tends to be men who get pushed out more than women. This is consistent with your thesis.

    So why do men get pushed out more? I think to answer that question, we would have to disaggregate the data by ethnicity and income. I suspect that low-income, minority men get pushed out more often, but that’s just a guess. Economic cycles must play some role as well.

  7. This is probably the best consequence of the civil rights era of the 60s and 70s.

    If women continue to assume more and greater positions of leadership, it may very well result in saving humanity since it is a proven neuroscience fact that women generally have a superior prefrontal cortex, while men are much more dominated by our amygdala which is why Washington and Sacramento are in the decline and fall phase of Democracy today.

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