US women close the gap

May 19, 2000

Women students have caught up with or surpassed men in many areas of American higher education, according to an exhaustive government survey.

The report by the US department of education shows that compared with the last time the issue was closely studied, in 1972, women have become more likely than men to attend a university immediately after high school and to receive a bachelor's degree,

Seventy per cent of female US high-school graduates immediately enrol in a two or four-year college course, compared with 64 per cent of male high-school graduates. Women now make up more than half of all American university enrolment, including at graduate level.

And while women still trail men slightly in medical and law schools, the gap is closing.

"Since the early 1970s, women have made dramatic gains in postsecondary education," the report says. "Women are still underrepresented in professional schools, but have made substantial progress."

In 1972, males were more likely than females to enrol in a university or college immediately after graduating from high school. Now the reverse is true. And, over the same period, female enrolment at American universities has increased from 42 per cent to 56 per cent.

The increase also reflects an influx of older women returning to school at least part-time. Women now account for 58 per cent of all part-time enrolment.

At the graduate level, the percentage of women has increased from 39 per cent to 56 per cent. And at professional schools, women have made considerable gains, rising from 9 per cent to 42 per cent of those enrolled.

The study reveals that not only are women more likely than men to attend university, they are more likely to obtain a degree within five years - by a factor of 50 per cent to 41 per cent.

The survey shows that the disparity in academic performance begins as early as three, when girls are more likely than boys to be read to at home, more likely to demonstrate early literacy and small motor skills - writing their own name, or holding a pencil correctly, for example - and less likely to have problems with behaviour or schoolwork.

"Evidence suggests that girls are perceived as adjusting more readily than boys to formal schooling," the report says.

Girls consistently outperform boys in reading and writing. Boys outperform girls in maths and science, but the gap in science is narrowing.

There is at least one major incentive for women to excel in education, according to the survey: women receive a greater earnings advantage from a university degree than men. Women aged 25 to 34 with a bachelor's degree or higher earned 61 per cent more than their counterparts with no more than a high-school education, compared with an earnings advantage for men of 54 per cent.

Gender differences remain. Women still earn a majority of the masters degrees in education and health, for example, while computer science and engineering generally remain male-dominated.

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