In the 21st century, we’ve seen increasingly that an educated workforce is one that’s ready for business. What has also been revealed is that this educated workforce is made up of a lot of women!

Women earn the majority of higher education degrees in America and play important roles in our post-industrial economy.  Just as our mothers and grandmothers poured into the labor market to make money for their families, women today feel economic pressure to acquire higher levels of education.  That’s why more and more young women are going to college.  This trend bodes well for women because education contributes to improved health, higher income, and overall a greater contribution to society.  The well-being and good character of our nation is linked to the culture of its women, and that culture is enhanced by educational opportunities.

Women earned close to 60 percent of the college degrees awarded in 2009.  That works out to 149 degrees awarded to women for every 100 degrees awarded to men.

This trend in higher education has been developing for some time.  The last time men earned more degrees than women at any level was 2006, when slightly more men than women earned both professional and doctoral degrees. The last year men earned more master’s degrees than women was 1985, for bachelor’s degrees it was 1981, and for associates degrees it was 1977.

When socioeconomic status is accounted for, we do see some nuances develop in the trend lines for men, but the trend lines are consistent for women.  Men of middle to upper class backgrounds are earning degrees, but women of all backgrounds are earning degrees.  These women are going to be more able to achieve financial stability and economic success in a modern economy that increasingly values resumes packed with degrees over physical labor.  In fact, of the 15 professions that have best weathered the recent economic downturn, only two are male dominated.  Since men are not going to just stop looking for jobs, we can look forward to men joining their female counterparts in traditionally female lines of work.

While many women in higher education are sticking to more traditionally female majors, an annual survey of college freshmen conducted by UCLA shows that the most popular major among women is business.  Women now earn nearly half (49 percent) of all business degrees.  Men still receive the majority of degrees in the majors with the highest earning potential, such as engineering, computer science, and medicine.  A report out this week from the Council of Graduate Schools stated that in 2009, for the first time, women earned more doctoral degrees than men.  Women now earn more degrees at every level of education than their male counterparts.

Those degrees are being put to use!  This year women became the majority of the American workforce, and many women became “the boss.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now hold 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs in the U.S. and that figure will continue to rise.  It’s no wonder.  Our economy isn’t very blue collar anymore, so women do not face the same physical challenges to achieving workplace parity they once did.  Women have also gained significant ground as political leaders, at the grass-roots level, among elected representatives, and as appointees.  Simply put, the eager young women working on their degrees know that there will be important work for them to do when they graduate.

Women Matter,” a study published in 2007 by McKinsey & Co., asserts that companies employing at least 30% female executives-not just a token woman here or there-perform better than all-male outfits.  There are a number of reasons why.  Female managers are more likely than men to make collaborative decisions, to behave as role models and to consider the ethical consequences of their acts.  Work cultures are adjusting to accommodate working parents with gender-neutral flex time, and social norms are adjusting to accept stay-at-home dads.

However, some things are not changing.  Nearly a quarter of women still work part-time.  In 1984, 27 percent of women worked only part-time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  In 2009, 26 percent of women had a part-time role in the workforce.  This signals that some women are still opting for a much more flexible way to achieve work-life balance.  In fact, women are paid more on average for part-time work than their male counterparts.

It is wonderful that so many women are participating in the higher education experience, but we must make sure that America’s men are not being left behind.  In America’s 21st-century economy, college is the gateway to economic success.  Women in large numbers are making it to this important milestone, but if men are not, we cannot expect the American family or society in general to be wholly improved or become more stable.  We need to find ways to get both men and women on the path to educational achievement if we are to truly grow our economy and increase opportunity for our workers.

Sarah Walters is a Policy Analyst for the Independent Women’s Forum. This is the second in a weekly fall series discussing women’s issues from the Independent Women’s Forum. The first article in this series can be found here.

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