A New Book That (Finally) Tells the Truth About the Rise of Women

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Two sociologists examine what led to women's educational advantage and present some surprising findings.

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Graduates listen to a commencement speech by President Barack Obama at the Miami Dade College North and West Campus graduation in 2011. (Charles Dharapak/AP Images)

The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools is both ambitious and modest in its goals: Sociologists Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann provide an ambitious analysis of why and how girls are outperforming boys in high school and going on to get a disproportionate share of college degrees. However, the authors modestly remain within their subject matter and avoid the unsupported claims about women's looming social dominance that have inflated much of the conversation about gender dynamics today.

This allows us to have a reasonable, valuable conversation about an important problem: the failure of the education system to help a majority of students to reach their academic potential. We clearly do not have a problem of over-education among women. Even among Whites alone, women as well as men are graduating college at rates lower than those in the most educationally advanced societies (which used to include the United States). Rather, we have a dysfunctional system that underperforms for men more than for women.

Rather than focusing on the full range of educational failures, DiPrete and Buchmann focus on a low-hanging fruit policy question: How can we improve college degree attainment for the approximately one-third of students who are ready to graduate college but do not, because they do not have the resources, they change their minds for some reason, or they are not adequately supported in the endeavor?

Women up

Since the 1980s, women have gotten the majority of bachelor's degrees. That's mostly because they also perform better in high school, getting better grades and taking more advanced courses. DiPrete and Buchmann set aside the issue of the potential cognitive advantages of girls, which may or may not be "innate." Such differences are too small and stable to account for the rapid change and large advantage in educational attainment women now hold. The reasons we do not have more people completing college—and gaining more skills and knowledge to enrich their lives—are not genetic or biological, but rather social and economic. We can do better, for both men and women.

While women have continued their upward historical educational trajectory since World War II, men's achievement of college degrees stagnated—coinciding historically with the growing necessity of having higher education for economic security. If you ever needed proof that majorities of people do not respond in predictably self-interested ways to economic incentives, it is the stagnation of male college graduation rates even as the returns to a college degree spiked upward.

DiPrete and Buchmann's sensible policy suggestions draw from this key insight: The difference between men and women, and how it has changed, can best be understood by studying differences among men and women—within genders. That means we don't just study what family, school, and environmental effects matter, but who is most strongly affected by such differences in the social context.

One important lesson: Schools with high overall performance have a smaller female advantage. That leads to the straightforward conclusion that we can address the gender gap partly by increasing the quality of schools across the board. Easier said than done, but no less important—or less true—for it.

Men up

It is important to connect women's educational rise with the other trends that have upended gender relations in the U.S., and the authors do an admirable job of tying these in. In particular, the rise in women's employment opportunities, the decline or delay in marriage, and falling fertility rates have all increased the incentives for (and ability of) women to complete college. And, of course, the rise in education has in turn fueled these other developments as well. For example, college graduate women as well as men are more likely to get (and stay) married than those who completed high school only. Maybe by getting a college degree they improve their marriage-market options—and reduce the odds that they will divorce by increasing the educational parity in their marriages.

While the title of DiPrete and Buchmann's book is overly dramatic, the subtitle is appropriately limited: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools. Because although women are more likely to graduate college and get some advanced degrees than men are today, there is nothing in this trend that implies women will surpass men in overall earnings or economic (much less political) power in the foreseeable future.

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Philip Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes regularly at Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change

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