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How the B.A. Gap Widens the Chasm Between Men and Women by Andrew Hacker

Heard about this study on the radio yesterday, and I think it's really fascinating.

It's a long article, but I think it's worth it.
Sometimes, a single statistic tells a historic story. One of my favorites is that, last year, women were awarded 57 percent of all bachelor's degrees. In 1960, a not-so-distant past, their share was 35 percent. By 1980, the recipients were equally matched by sex.

What no one foresaw was that women's presence on campuses would continue to grow. In the 2002 processions, for every 100 women there were only 75 men. The U.S. Department of Education estimates there will be even fewer men this year, not only in percentage terms but also in absolute numbers.

That imbalance is already having an impact, and not only on campuses. The fallout is being felt in the larger society and in intimate relations. After all, a B.A. has become the nation's principal credential for professional positions, as well as an emblem of class and social standing. While it is not something we say openly, B.A.'s seldom consort with non-B.A.'s.


How did women reach that 57 percent? They have always had what it takes to be good students, and expanding opportunities over the last century have given them the chance to demonstrate that. More high-school girls than boys now take Advanced Placement tests, do A work, and are inducted into honor societies. As judged by the number taking the ACT, more girls are intending to head to college. Fewer are willing to be diffident about competing.

But it is equally important to ask what is happening with boys. A complicated range of socioeconomic factors is at work. A wag once described education from kindergarten through college as "17 years of sustained sitting," and some young boys, particularly where large class numbers preclude "active learning," are struggling with rote teaching styles and rigid authority structures. They may be less apt to listen carefully in class or heed how examination questions are worded. In the past, young men who went to college could get in and by with their C's; today, they face more competition -- from women, in particular, and from the growing number of students going to college in general -- and C's will land them entry-level jobs only at Costco and Home Depot.

Moreover, relative to women, the proportion of men who finish college has been falling for all ethnic groups. Once, men were given privileged status within some minority groups; today, Asian women now earn 53 percent of their group's undergraduate degrees, and the share for Hispanic women is 58 percent.

The real question is, What impact is all this having? It's amazing how much people tiptoe around that. We're warned about generalizing, about stereotyping, about hurting someone's feelings. To be sure, this is an area in which it is difficult to lay down hard-and-fast rules. Human behavior is never so simple. But it seems fair to ask how demographic changes are affecting our social and emotional lives.

An elemental issue in every society is how couples pair off. Anthropologists talk about the phenomenon of hypergamy, or the effort of people to "marry up." Recall all those movie plots where nurses set their eyes on interns, while secretaries fancied young executives. Indeed, a generation ago, in 1970, among husbands who had B.A.'s, 62 percent had wives with less education than they did. Today, the reverse is increasingly the case. According to the latest Census count, among married women ages 25 to 34 who have bachelor's degrees, 39 percent have husbands who haven't gotten that far.

The fact is that the B.A. gap is making, and is likely to continue to make, finding a mate of the opposite sex with an equal education more difficult for women. Not so long ago, when men outnumbered women in the college population and made up the majority on almost all coed campuses, college women had a choice of husbands or partners. In 1970, adding Brown, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, Penn, and Stanford
together, each 100 women they enrolled could pick from among 212 men. Today, at Brown and Cornell, women outnumber men, and at the others, the sex ratio is essentially even.

Note the Sex and the City foursome of young women, all of whom are college graduates and brainy and attractive. After five seasons of sustained searching, and many relationships, none has found a Mr. Right. Yes, the interests of keeping the plot going year after year undoubtedly have something to do with that, but what's expressed on the television show is also evidence of a cultural anxiety many feel.

As more and more women have experienced higher education, they have developed higher expectations about what they want from life. And that, certainly, is what we want to happen. However, those goals and ideals have also led them to set higher standards for dates and mates, even as fewer men are passing the tests. By contrast, when I first started teaching at Cornell a generation or so ago, all too many women would settle for very "average" guys, often getting engaged before graduating.

As it happens, the gender mismatch we are now observing had some parallels in the past, albeit on a smaller scale. Through the 1920s, marriage rates for graduates of women's colleges were well under the national norm. That was notable at colleges like Vassar, Wellesley, and Bryn Mawr, which urged their students toward serious careers in medicine, law, public service, and academe. (Indeed, M. Carey Thomas, Bryn Mawr's legendary president, once reportedly remarked, "Only our failures marry.") No doubt some women were put off by the prospect of married lives as Main Line matrons, preferring to end up as what their era called "spinsters." Of course, that term has disappeared, as has a presumption of celibacy. Even so, today's B.A. gap is likely to renew the link for women between higher education and remaining unmarried.

We keep reminding ourselves that college isn't merely about earning power and professional success. Years on a campus also have a cultural component. We hope that students will respond to demands on their intellect and imagination. However, the degree gap raises a possibility that, as more women pursue new interests, there will be a shortfall of men to share those interests with. Let's imagine a single, not atypical, case. At least a few single women would like their dates to join them while watching, say, a Henry James adaptation on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. Not to mention discussing afterward the snares he sets for his characters. But audience surveys show that such women are likely to end up seeing it either alone or with female friends. Similar findings apply for classical-music concerts and art exhibitions. Perhaps that was ever so. But are college women increasingly going to have to settle for less in their relationships?

And what are the implications of all of this -- social, political, emotional? Commentators have already noted the growing gap in political attitudes between men and women on a range of issues. In 2000, for every 100 single women who voted for Al Gore, there were only 64 single men who had similar ballots. On gun ownership, for every 100 women who wanted more controls, only 69 men shared their views. Of course, couples can differ on issues. But will the growing gap in the numbers of men and women on campus further change differences in political attitudes? We can only speculate now, but it seems a question worth asking.

And what of the professions? Each year sees fewer domains remaining exclusive preserves of men. Between 1970 and 2000, women went from receiving 8.4 percent of medical degrees to 42.7 percent. In that period, they rose from 5.4 percent to 45.9 percent of law graduates, and from 3.6 percent to 39.8 percent of M.B.A.'s. Unquestionably, the sex ratios among those seeking advanced degrees will shape the pool of professionals in the generations ahead.

The issues raised don't just cover questions about marriage and family, which commentators across the political spectrum have been debating. There is a whole range of topics on which we could begin conducting research: For example, how will changes in the competitive scene affect social relationships? Working environments? Competition has always been the name of the American game; to be sure, not everyone can win on every occasion. In the past, however, men expected that they might be beaten out by other men. Increasingly, they will have to deal with the fact of losing to a woman. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that's a bad thing. Just that it will be different.

Of course, we also need much more discussion of the fact that, if more women are winning, most will pay a toll that is not often levied on successful men. As one current best seller puts it, I Don't Know How She Does It. At issue is not just getting support in keeping home and family and job all going, but getting psychological support as well, with cheering and consoling and commiserating from an intimate to cushion the strains of careers.

It should not be surprising that 90 percent of men who head colleges are married. (Many of the rest are priests at Catholic schools.) But even as the number of female presidents has doubled in recent years, a revealing fact is that only 57 percent of them are married. The Census has comparable data on earnings. Among Americans whose earnings exceed $100,000 -- predominantly a college-educated stratum -- 83 percent of the men are currently married, but only 58 percent of the women are.

No, the United States is not becoming a matriarchy. Thus far, testosterone seems alive and well. Ninety-nine percent of the top 500 corporations are still headed by men. Nor have there been basic changes in the ways in which organizations work. Rather, women who aspire to move ahead are still expected to follow male models, and most have done so with aplomb.

What is new is the number of men who will not have the power and positions their fathers had, and it remains to be seen how they will adapt to a subordinate status. Just as troubling is the unwillingness of young men to continue on to college and to gain the competencies a new century will require and expect. It is almost as if many are surrendering while barely in their teens.

Does this amount to what Christina Hoff Sommers has branded a "war against boys"? (For a while, the University of Georgia gave all its male applicants extra points, to augment their numbers on the campus.) No, I don't think we can say that boys are being shortchanged. After all, women are no longer being given preference in college admissions. If they were, lawyers would surely have filed suit on the behalf of men who felt they were displaced. So it's not as if there has been a planned strategy, fomented by feminists or some other wily group. Rather, girls and women have found there are opportunities for their talents and skills, and they are taking advantage of the openings. Nor can it be shown that law or medicine or business or other professions have had to lower their bars to let women in. What can be said with more certainty is that the college gap has widened a chasm between the sexes, and that's a portentous shift which was never foreseen when the goal was simply that everyone have a chance to show their true talents.
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
Okay, those first few pars put me right off - and here's why.


One of my favorites is that, last year, women were awarded 57 percent of all bachelor's degrees.

The writer seems to presume that all Bachelors degrees are BA's.

However, a BA is a Bachelor of the Arts. My husband has a BSc - Bachelor of Sciences. BA's are traditionally subjects such as English, History, Art, etc. which are stereotypically 'female' subjects. The sciences have stereotypically 'male' subjects. When I was at high school in the UK, my chemistry teacher wanted me to take chem for A Level. I'd be offered extra coaching, all to make up the numbers.

While it is not something we say openly, B.A.'s seldom consort with non-B.A.'s.

I'm a BA married to a BSc. After getting a BSc in Health Sciences, he went on to get an Associates degree to be a Physical Therapist Assistant. He's now applying to either do a Masters or Doctorate course to become a Physical Therapist. Meanwhile, this BA is currently sitting at home and doing clerical work when she does work. In other words, this non-BA guy is doing better than the BA-gal.

I think this writer failed in his argument by immediately presuming that all Bachelors degrees are Bachelor of Arts folks. With that presumption appearing in the first three pars, it didn't matter what else he had to say - his argument failed to appeal to me.
You could always be atypical ;)

I think you're right, though... it's something the author, or the people who did the story, need to address/clarify.
There's no 'could' about it. We are atypical in a lot of respects.

But yes, the writer definitely needed to address the differences, as your other commentators have pointed out. This article was searching for a particular angle to make their story plausible.
I'll second that by saying that when I attended Sydney Uni, a BA was supposed to be a Bugger All degree - not up to the academic standards of other degrees. It also used to be called, although before my time, "the marriage degree", which women completed in order to find an acceptable husband while at University.

While I'm sure some of these perceptions have changed, I know that most of the people I knew at Uni doing BSc, BEc, and particularly BEng degrees, looked down on anyone doing a BA - myself included, even though I have a major in Pure Maths and Computer Science.
BSc, BEc, and particularly BEng

Okay, I know the first, and I think I can guess the third, but...
Well, I think "looking down on" may have been the wrong wording. It was more that they thought Arts students had it easy.

This stemmed primarily from the fact that most Arts students I knew when in my third year of Uni, remembering that Australia has three year degree programs, had no more than about 14 hours of lectures and tutorials each week. As I was doing Maths and Computer Science, I had in the region of 26 hours of lectures, tutes, and labs. The friends who thought Arts students had almost no work were studying Electrical Engineering, and had 38 or more hours of lectures, tutorials, and labs every week. This did not include any assignment or other work they had to do like writing up and submitting lab summaries. You can see why they thought BA students had it easy.

Of course, as you and I both know, a BA typically involves a different sort of work. There are many more essays and research papers that have to be done, etc. I understand that, as I did History for two years. However, I know that I only had one exam in History per semester. While that was an essay exam, I also had to take at least three Maths exams per semester, each of 3 hours in length. Yes, there were papers and things to write, but I know I did nowhere near as much course work as almost all of my friends in Science programs.

It's possible much of this is because of fundamental differences in how University programs are organised in Australia. Degrees are only three year programs, and only related subjects are studied. I never had to do anything that did not directly count towards my degree, and I know that's not the same as the way things work here. Still, I think it's probably fair to say that many students of science programs think that students of arts programs have it easy.
I'm going to uh, third that. I go to a technical college, i.e. a school that focuses on the hard sciences. My school has virtually no programs for English or Art majors. We also have a sex ratio of about 1 girl for every 3 guys on campus. In my computer and engineering courses the ratio is lower, maybe 1:7 or less. Maybe it's not that women are earning more B.A.'s then men, but rather men are migrating towards different fields, some of which didn't exist back in 1970.
I know when I was at Uni, I had several friends doing Electrical Engineering. The ratio of male to female students in that class was 96:1, and she happened to be Asian and spoke English very poorly - nothing against Asian women, I'm just passing that along as a comment, as it's very often that it's Asians doing the more mathematically intense subjects.
I know at UOP it differs a lot from school to school. Business and Engineering have more guys than Education, for example. The English and Math and Science degree programs still have more women than men. UOP has more female students than male, as I was unfortunate to find out ;) and judging by this article, that's becoming the norm.

Another aspect I heard on the radio... if a woman with a BA or Masters or whatever does as this article suggests and winds up wit a guy who works at Home Depot, that would *probably* make her the breadwinner of the family (unless she's, oh, an elementary school teacher and he's the owner of Home Depot ;)). 1) How does that make the guy feel and 2) What happens if the couple wants to have kids?

Oh... and we have a LOT of Asians, too ;)
(Anonymous)
I didn't 'wind' up with hubs - we met, and I knew that he was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I'll always earn considerably more than him, I've got a degree whereas he left school with no qualifications. It doesn't make one jot of difference. There is no 'breadwinner' scenario. We both pay a fair share of the bills 'pro rata', that is a percentage according to how much each earns. Whatever is left over after we've put into savings is that person's to spend.

I don't know why earning power would make any difference to parenting. The only difference is a gender one - I'll always end up doing 'more' no matter how hard he tries (and he does) simply because that's what always happens.

One thing that I've noticed, particularly recently, is the attitude towards young boys. Girls develop faster - they just do. Take toilet training for example. Little girls pretty much do it themselves. It is as if they wake up one day and decide 'hey I don't want to sit around in this anymore!'. And they do so quite a bit younger than boys.

With boys, it is almost as if they're thinking 'I can go to the toilet anywhere anytime, and this is a problem, why?' It takes a lot more work, a lot more coaxing and a lot more time. My younger sister had a boy, and was surrounded by people who all had girls. She started to get a huge complex, thinking that her little one was somehow deficient, or slow. And was often made to feel that way by the other parents. I explained that it was actually quite normal, and introduced her to a friend of mine with a son slightly older than hers, who was still in nappies. And she explained to my sister that all the boys she knew were in the same development pattern.

I know it is only a little thing, but parents can be overly competitive, and I wonder if right from an early age boys are being made to feel dumb and a bit 'behind'.
I think one of the points that I can add to this discussion is how hard it is to be the female with a bachelor's degree married to a male with no degree. The inequity doesn't bother me at all, but it bothers him, and the people around us treat him with less respect because of it.
As far as I know most females are also not happy with treated as a lower being . Especially based on something that constitutes a very small part of their personality or their supposed failure in a race they never wanted to take part in. Okay, I better stop before I start venting;)
So basically this is saying that you've got a lower chance of finding an appropriate intellectual spouse, and you should settle for some guy that works at the local Home Depot?? ;)

In 2000, for every 100 single women who voted for Al Gore, there were only 64 single men who had similar ballots. On gun ownership, for every 100 women who wanted more controls, only 69 men shared their views.

Except that you were one of the smaller number of women who shared the views of each 100 men who voted for Bush and for gun ownership, so you've got a bit of a larger playing field there. ;)

It's an interesting article, and I agree that I think females perform better in a larger class environment than males do. I wonder how that will affect my son by the time he is likely to start University.

On a related note, I heard recently that the head of the British equivalent of the AMA (which is the Doctor's association I think), said that she would like to see parity between the numbers of male and female doctors, as there are currently more female doctors than male doctors, and she is concerned that the profession is becoming less well respected than it used to be for that very reason.
more female doctors than male doctors, and she is concerned that the profession is becoming less well respected than it used to be for that very reason.

Okay, that's disturbing. Not because there are more women, but because that's the result.

In the Middle Ages, weavers and embroiderers were high-prestige, high-paid guild professionals. And men. Up to the late nineteenth century, a secretary was considered educated and highly respectable. And of *course* a man.

There's also a certain amount of chicken-and-egg to the phenomenon -- nobody can say with absolute certainty that these jobs were ghettoized because women were joining them, as opposed to women starting doing them because they had lost prestige and men no longer wanted them. Or a wonky combination of both factors.

How much do I not want to find out by seeing it happen to medicine, of all things?
OH yeah.

And another note: anything having to do with kids is generally slightly less prestigious *and* more open to women. All the professional areas related to kids are where most of the women with advanced degrees go: child psychology, pediatric medicine, etc. And the younger the kids, the more likely an area is to be female dominated. The first female school principals in most parts of the country were elementary school principals. Walk into a high school, a middle school, and an elementary school and count the men. The younger kids get female teachers. And if the women so firmly dominate that area, they aren't in other places - the numbers have to balance out somewhere. And furthermore, there's a barrier for men who want to work with kids - they're regarded with suspicion.
It is rather scary that this sort of thing should happen, especially to something like this. I guess it's just an indication that perceptions of things change.

I wish I could remember where I heard this. I think it was on NPR one morning, but I can't remember for sure.

And what are the implications of all of this -- social, political, emotional? Commentators have already noted the growing gap in political attitudes between men and women on a range of issues. In 2000, for every 100 single women who voted for Al Gore, there were only 64 single men who had similar ballots. On gun ownership, for every 100 women who wanted more controls, only 69 men shared their views. Of course, couples can differ on issues. But will the growing gap in the numbers of men and women on campus further change differences in political attitudes?

Wait... is that implying that education makes you relatively left-wing? Because much as I wish it did I don't think that's true.

What is new is the number of men who will not have the power and positions their fathers had, and it remains to be seen how they will adapt to a subordinate status.

Well, call me heartless, but it's about sodding time.
And what are the implications of all of this -- social, political, emotional?

It *looks* a bit like it... but then, I don't know the source, so I can't guess much beyond that. It's the slipping that in to an essay on *education* that sort of... feels a bit off.

Hmm... *ponders*
Yeah, I know that part, what I'm saying is, I don't see how slipping into "and here's how men and women vote" *isn't* in some way making an implication about educational standards and voting patterns.

And this has nothing to do with my own beliefs on politics, because it would be just as glaring if it said education makes you a Republican. And it's not like it's doing a reverse-connection by saying certain political leanings make you favour further education (which I'd argue would actually make more sense.)