Steady increases among women with college degrees over the past two decades apparently paid off during the recession, with government statistics showing they fared better than men over the past year, and for the first time surpassed the number of men holding payroll jobs.
Women were earning about 166 associates degrees and 135 bachelor's degrees for every 100 earned by men in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Perhaps as a result, more women were employed in teaching, government and health care, sectors that held up better in the recession. The construction and manufacturing sectors, which often require less schooling, have shed millions of jobs in the last few years.
Revised data released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed women held about 720,000 more nonfarm payroll jobs than men in January. They also exceeded the number of men on the payroll during four months last year.
"This is unprecedented," said Tim Consedine, regional economist,at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in Boston.
The turnaround underlines an astonishing change in the educational and employment status of women in the U.S. in the past three decades, with broad social and economic implications for family, gender relations and even employers' human-resources policies. As more jobs are being created in fields that require higher education, a smaller share of men are getting degrees, giving women an employment advantage. Some men are returning to college for degrees in formerly female-dominated fields such as teaching and nursing.
"There are very high returns to education in the marketplace right now," said Casey B. Mulligan, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, who has studied gender differences in the labor market. "It's a fact that women have leveraged."
Dawn Clark, of Davison, Mich., illustrates the change. She completed her nursing degree after marrying and bearing three children to supplement the family's income with a part-time job.
But when her husband Kevin lost his job as a lumber salesman 18 months ago, Ms. Clark, 42 years old, took over the role of main breadwinner. She now earns about $70,000 a year as a registered nurse. Kevin, 48, who used to earn up to $72,000 annually, now takes in about $18,000 a year working two jobs. He attended college for only a year.
"If I didn't have this degree I wouldn't be able to help, I don't know where we would be today," Ms. Clark said.
Women's pay also is rising faster than men's, albeit from a lower base. Median men's weekly wages rose 3.4% in the two years ended in the fourth quarter of 2009, to $825. During that same period, women's wages rose 5.3%, to $670.
We do still see huge disparities in upper-level management and fields requiring greater mathematical skills to the disadvantage of women. However, we also need to do something about men at the lower end of the skill ladder to get them the education and training they need.