Education of any type, much less higher education, just wasn’t available to women during most of our history. Clear proof that things have changed – a lot – is a new report confirming that black women are now the most educated group in the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics between 2009 and 2010, black women earned 68 percent of all associate degrees awarded to black students, as well as 66 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 71 percent of master’s degrees and 65 percent of all doctorates awarded to black students.
History of Women and Education in the U.S.
The American colonies were progressive in that girls were taught to read and write. But the only way they could get higher education was if a seat was left over after all the boys were served. If a woman advanced her intellect, people thought, she would be “unsexed.” The way a woman set about building her self esteem and gaining self confidence was to cultivate the appropriate feminine arts like cooking, sewing, raising children and running a household.
In 1833, the first university in the nation accepted women students and the first woman soon received a bachelor’s degree. The rest of the century saw a new first every decade: first to earn a medical degree, a Ph.D., a science degree, dentistry, architecture, mathematics and then psychology. The first woman was appointed superintendent of public instruction, and the first woman became a full professor with a salary equal to her male peers.
In the post-World War II era, the financial return to women with a higher education greatly increased. By the late 1950s, women tended to pursue female-intensive occupations such as teaching and social work after graduation. So, they majored in education, English and literature perhaps, and they often aimed at finding suitable mates in college.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, women’s expectations of their place in the future labor force changed radically. Rather than follow in their mothers’ footsteps, they aimed to have careers, not just jobs. These careers were often outside of the traditionally female occupations. That’s when things really began to change.
In the early 1990s, adult women were as likely as men to earn a bachelor’s degree or attend graduate school. But around the middle of the decade, women began to surpass men in college enrollment. In 1994, 63% of recent female high school graduates and 61% of male recent high school graduates enrolled in college in the fall following graduation. By 2012, the share of young women enrolled in college immediately after high school had increased to 71%, but it remained unchanged for young men at 61%.
Women Are Making Amazing Progress
Today, women in the workforce are more likely to have at least a bachelor’s degree than not. They’re also making gains in occupations that traditionally have been dominated by men.
The woman-dominated majors of today are:
- Health Professions (85% women): nursing assistant, veterinary assistant, dental assistant, etc.
- Public Administration (82%): social work, public policy, etc.
- Education (79%): pre-K, K-12, higher education, etc.
- Psychology (77%): cognitive psychology, clinical psychology, etc.
Women are also holding their own in most of the STEM majors, as 40-45% of the degrees in math, statistics, and the physical sciences were conferred to women in 2012. Even better, a majority of biology degrees in 2012 (58%) were earned by women.
Pew Research Center has reported that employment and wage gains made by young women in recent decades are undoubtedly linked to their gains in education. We have made amazing progress in just 10 generations, but women have not reached parity with men, particularly in the most highly compensated fields. On average, women make up 56 percent of workers in the 20 lowest-paid occupations, but only 29 percent of workers in the 20 highest-paid occupations. It’s important to remember, in light of women’s rapid educational gains, that each and every degree conferred to a woman brings us all that much closer to parity. And parity means more than equal pay; it means equal status, equal power and equal opportunity for creating a better world.