College-Educated Women Advance in Workforce

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The Pew Research Center recently published some interesting data on women in the workforce. For the first time ever, women with college degrees have overtaken men and now account for more than half – 50.7 percent – of the college-educated labor force in the United States. This is consistent with many similar long-term economic trends, by which women have been closing historic economic gaps in terms of income and career performance versus men. Women, for example, have been outperforming men in higher education in general for decades. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, women have been receiving the majority of the 4-year degrees in the United States since the early 1980s; women are now earning almost 58% of bachelor’s degrees. Women have also been receiving the majority of master’s degrees since the mid-1980s and the majority of doctoral degrees since the mid-2000s.

Despite this impressive record of achievement, however, we still hear a lot of criticism about how a market economy is somehow not delivering equal results to women in the U.S. The frequently-cited statistic that women only earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, for example, would seem to insist that sexist unfairness is endemic to the American workforce. But as many critics have been explaining over the years – including plenty of female ones – that apparent disparity is a myth. When President Obama mentioned the 77 percent figure in his 2014 State of the Union address, the American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Sommers explained the problem with his reasoning:

The 23-cent gender pay gap is simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women working full-time. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure, or hours worked per week. When all these relevant factors are taken into consideration, the wage gap narrows to about five cents. And no one knows if the five cents is a result of discrimination or some other subtle, hard-to-measure difference between male and female workers.

Circling back to higher education, Sommers goes on to point out that while women may be receiving an increasing majority of college degrees overall, it is men who tend to choose majors in the most high-paying fields. Using statistics from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, she pointed out that (in 2014) the most remunerative majors are dominated, 9 out of 10, by men and the lowest-paying majors are disproportionately dominated by female students. More recent data reported by CBS News shows very similar results: almost all of the top-earning majors are in engineering and related STEM fields, and men are overwhelmingly more likely to study those topics and enter those professions (the lowest-paying majors tend to be in education, arts, and social work). We can certainly have a conversation about why that is, but given those facts, it shouldn’t be surprising that there exists some residual income gap between men and women – indeed, it would be almost mathematically impossible for there not to be one.

As long as male college students keep gravitating to mechanical engineering and female college students keep signing up for early childhood education, there’s going to be an earnings gap. But it’s one that results from the free choices of individuals, following their own interests. To look at workplace statistics from a slightly different angle, consider the question of safety. The occupational choices of women result in slightly lower average earnings than men, but also make them dramatically safer on the job. Women make up almost 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, yet in 2021 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that women made up only 8.6 percent of all workplace fatalities. Should we have a new federal initiative to bring that number into parity with men?

We also covered this topic on Episode 9, “Unconstitutional Taxation with Dan Greenberg,” of the Free the Economy podcast (workforce segment starts at 8:18).