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.
Education in professional schools shows a similar self-selection. Women receive only 37 percent of MBAs. Women who finish medical school gravitate toward family practice over higher-paying surgery; freshly minted female lawyers tend to choose public-interest law over a corporate practice.
Why don't more women act like Sabino and choose the more lucrative majors? Educated women, after all, show the work ethic to succeed in college and beyond, and presumably they appreciate money as much as men do. The answer may lie in a fault line that runs through the U.S. education system from pre-K to Ph.D.: a mismatch between qualities that the schools reward versus those that the real world will prize.
Girls outperform boys in school from the start, not only because of superior communication and interpersonal skills but also because of a greater willingness to follow rules, line up quietly, and listen. Interpersonal skills count for a lot in today's job market. But obedience doesn't. A quick-shifting, globally competitive economy rewards assertiveness and innovation over sitting still or knowing which bubbles to fill in on a standardized test. Women need boldness to strike into male-dominated majors.
Camille Sabino has the best of both worlds. With two older brothers, she's comfortable in a boys' club atmosphere, and her immigrant parents evidently instilled an iron self-confidence. "I haven't found anything that's really difficult being the only girl in my classes," she said. "I think in some ways it's even easier. I know a lot of technical stuff, but I'm also good at managing and communicating with people. When I'm working with a couple of boys in a class project, I tend to be the one who makes sure everything is going well." She isn't afraid to call herself ambitious and has sought out female professors as mentors. A survey by Catalyst, the women's professional organization, found that women with mentors saw their salaries rise 27 percent higher than women without.
Mentoring and planning ahead, Berkeley's Mason noted, can matter as much as structural changes — such as part-time career tracks and paternity leave — in helping women leverage their educational success into economic success. "I'd like to see Life Planning 101 as a college course," she said. "Young women are unaware of how difficult it becomes fitting childbirth into your career plans. But "¦ if you think in advance, it becomes easier."
The writer is a senior writer at Fast Company magazine and the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.