SAN FRANCISCO -- These are great days for female undergraduates, who with their greater numbers are excelling in higher education, leaving their male counterparts in the dust. That's the increasingly common view, at least, leading to calls in some quarters to focus more on male students.
But what if the enrollment totals are obscuring a major equity issue that may not favor women at all? That was the idea behind research presented here Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. The research links women's and men's college majors with earning gaps by gender, after graduation. And even as the earning gaps nationally have declined, the study says, the share of the gap attributable to college major has grown.
The author of the paper, Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, a sociologist at Ohio State University, used the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, combining data sets to compare men and women who graduated from high school in 1972 and 1992, and to compare their salaries seven years after high school graduation. (Only those employed full time, following a college degree, were compared.)
The good news for women is that during the time period studied, their average salary increased from 78 cents for every male dollar earned to 83 cents. But when Bobbitt-Zeher controlled for various factors, she found that the share of that gap attributable to selection of major had increased. She controlled for a variety of factors that may result in some people, on average, earning more than others: industries that employ them, socioeconomic status, SAT scores, the competitiveness of the colleges students attended, and whether students subsequently earned a graduate degree.
When controlling for all available factors, Bobbitt-Zeher found that the choice of major explained 19 percent of the income gap between college-educated men and women for the high school class of 1999, nearly twice as much of an impact as could be documented for the class that graduated 20 years earlier.
For comparison purposes, Bobbitt-Zeher divided majors into four categories: business; math, natural sciences, and engineering; education; and the social sciences, arts and humanities. Men are more likely than women to major in the first two categories and women more likely than men to major in the latter two. What Bobbitt-Zeher then noticed was that both men and women are increasingly majoring with more women, but that while men are headed toward parity, majors that are more popular with women are becoming increasingly dominated by women.
In the 1970s, men were majoring in programs in which women made up 23 percent of the students, and women were majoring in fields that were 49 percent female. By the 1990s, men were on average majoring in programs that were 45 percent female, while women were majoring in programs that were 60 percent female, and were becoming "feminized," according to the paper.
In her presentation, Bobbitt-Zeher acknowledged that it is not possible to know the extent to which women are making a completely free choice about their majors, or whether there are encouragements (or discouragements) that are sending more women in certain directions and more men in others.
But the paper argues that these patterns -- especially given that choice of major is increasingly responsible for economic differences among men and women -- need more attention. And the paper notes that these findings challenge the idea that women's issues in undergraduate education have somehow all been addressed.
"While general patterns in women’s educational accomplishments are often interpreted as an end point for gender equality -- that gender is no longer an impediment for women in education and/or in society at large -- the findings show that even though women may be advantaged in some areas of education and have reduced gender differences in other schooling areas, education still contributes in a meaningful way to social disadvantage for women. Indeed, it contributes more than it did in the past. Of particular concern is the importance of gender segregation in fields of study, which is shown here to increasingly contribute to the gender income gap."
After her talk, Bobbitt-Zeher said that one difficulty of analyzing these issues is that "there's a lot going on here."
She noted that efforts by many in higher education to recruit more female students into science programs should help, but she said that these efforts may also need a push by, for example, increasing efforts to hire more women as faculty members in these departments.
But she also noted the "complexity" of the situation, and suggested that promoting economic equity for men and women may require changes in attitudes across the board.
"As women go into men's majors, that's part of it, but men need to go into other majors, too, and as women go into some majors, men sometimes don't want those majors anymore," she said.