National

Women closing higher-degree gap

WASHINGTON — Women are now just as likely as men to have completed college and to hold an advanced degree, part of an accelerating trend of educational gains that have shielded women from recent job losses. Yet they continue to lag behind men in pay.

Among adults 25 and older, 29 percent of women in the U.S. have at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 30 percent of men, according to 2009 census figures released Tuesday. Measured by raw numbers, women already surpass men in undergraduate degrees by roughly 1.2 million.

Women also have drawn even with men in holding advanced degrees. Women represented roughly half of those in the U.S. with a master's degree or higher, due largely to years of steady increases in women opting to pursue a medical or law degree.

At current rates, women could pass men in total advanced degrees this year, even though they still trail significantly in several categories such as business, science and engineering.

"It won't be long before women dominate higher education and every degree level up to Ph.D.," said Mark Perry, an economics professor at the University of Michigan-Flint who is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "They are getting the skills that will protect them from future downturns."

While young women have been exceeding men in college enrollment since the early 1980s, the educational gains have now progressively spread upward to older age groups. That could have wide ramifications in the workplace: more working mothers, increased child-care needs and a greater focus on pay disparities among them.

Women with full-time jobs now have weekly earnings equal to 80.2 percent of what men earn, up slightly from 2008 but lower than a high of 81 percent in 2005.

"I don't know if we can be heartened by the educational gains, because it is persistent wage discrimination that is driving women to get a higher education," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. "As more women enter the workplace, I think they will realize the unfairness of the situation they're experiencing and demand change."

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