Men, Women & the Masters Degree

Conventional wisdom, based on centuries of observation, says that men will outearn women in the same job with the same educational level and experience.

But what if some of those caveats—about education, in particular—are beginning to change?

The latest census revealed that as of 2010, 2 percent more women than men had earned at least a bachelor’s degree if they were over the age of 25. (37 percent of women had achieved the educational distinction, in comparison to 35 percent of men).

And women soared above men in numbers when it came to tallying post-graduate coursework: 8.3 million women had earned a master’s degree, while only 6.9 million men had done so.

A recent Associated Press article highlighted the fact that in this recession, women have tended to head back to the classroom to pursue advanced degrees—while men have headed into the workforce, trying to earn more money.

That has some analysts asking: in five to ten years time, what will matter more: education, or experience? And how will that upset the conventional wisdom that women make less than men, or that a higher degree leads to higher paychecks?

Right now, Stephanie Coontz, of Evergreen State College, who studies public education, wrote in the New York Times: “Women in their 20s outearn their male counterparts in most major metropolitan areas, largely because of higher rates of college completion.”

Of course, that changes as women age, primarily because they are still viewed as the “default” parent, Coontz says, noting: “Aside from the first few years of work, men still outearn women at every educational level.”

While there used to be a disparity in both the workplace and the job market, however, it seems that as a whole, women seem to have taken over as overachievers. Young men and women, as a general group (to which there are countless examples, of course), seem to have developed very different attitudes toward college and higher education.

While young men are more likely to appear laid back, the stereotype is that young women are frenzied over-achievers.

Writer Tamar Lewin tackled the subject for a 2006 New York Times article, interviewing men and women across the U.S.

“I take the path of least resistance,” said Rick Kohn, then 24. He was working 25 hours a week to put himself through theUniversity of North Carolina, Greensboro.

“This summer, I looked for the four easiest courses I could take that would let me graduate in August,” he further elaborated to Lewin. “What’s the difference between an A and a B? Eitherway, you go on to the next class.”

But Kohn wasn’t a slacker, either. He told Lewin he genuinely liked his classes and hoped to get his master’s. He was just one representative example of the type of male student that Lewin reported was becoming more prevalent.

What remains to be seen is how relevant high achievement in the classroom is to predicting future success or wages in the workplace. For every 4.0 student who has a decent job, there are exceptions of multi-millionaires who never completed college.

And all things are still not entirely equal, even in the classroom.

The latest census reminds us that there is still a gender disparity in education when it comes to traditionally male fields or the highest echelons of education. Nearly twice as many men as women hold doctorate degrees, and men hold 1.9 million professional degrees in comparison to the 1.2 million that women hold.

Published this week by the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press newspapers in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

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