By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; 3:19 AM
For the first time, more women than men in the United States received doctoral degrees last year, the culmination of decades of change in the status of women at colleges nationwide.
The number of women at every level of academia has been rising for decades. Women now hold a nearly 3-to-2 majority in undergraduate and graduate education. Doctoral study was the last holdout - the only remaining area of higher education that still had an enduring male majority.
Of the doctoral degrees awarded in the 2008-09 academic year, 28,962 went to women and 28,469 to men, according to an annual enrollment report from the Council of Graduate Schools, based in Washington.
Doctoral degrees, which require an average of seven years' study, are typically the last to show the impact of long-term changes. "It is a trend that has been snaking its way through the educational pipeline," said Nathan Bell, the report's author and the director of research and policy analysis for the council. "It was bound to happen."
Women have long outnumbered men in earning master's degrees, especially in education. Women earned nearly six in 10 graduate degrees in 2008-09, according to the new report, which is based on an annual survey of graduate institutions.
But women who aspired to become college professors, a common path for those with doctorates, were hindered by the particular demands of faculty life. Studies have found that the tenure clock often collides with the biological clock: The busiest years of the academic career are the years that well-educated women tend to have children.
"Many women feel they have to choose between having a career in academics and having a family," said Catherine Hill, director of research at the American Association of University Women. "Of course, they shouldn't have to."
Undergraduate women began reaching parity with men in the early 1980s as societal barriers to female scholarship fell away. And then they eclipsed men - so thoroughly that federal officials are now investigating whether some liberal arts schools are favoring men in admissions to preserve some semblance of gender balance.
A freshman seminar at the University of Iowa called "Graduate School: Is It for You?" drew 16 students last year, Associate Provost John Keller said. Fifteen of them were women.
Scholarly attention in recent years has turned to the fallen aspirations of men, who are more likely than women to drop out of high school and more apt to be diverted from higher education into menial labor or prison. Men also join the military in disproportionate numbers.
Overall, women and girls make up 51 percent of the U.S. population. But women have not conquered every corridor of the ivory tower. Men still hold the majority of faculty and administration positions. Women earn less than men at every level of academic rank, according to the American Association of University Professors. Male faculty members earned $87,206 on average and their female counterparts made $70,600 in the 2009-10 academic year. Starting salaries for newly minted faculty members are nearly equal.
Men retained the lead in doctoral degrees until 2008, largely through their dominance in engineering, mathematics and the physical sciences. They still earn nearly 80 percent of engineering doctorates.
The increase in women receiving doctoral degrees resulted from years of persistent gains across several areas of study. In the health sciences, for example, the number has risen at a rate of 14 percent per year over the past decade. Women now earn 70 percent of doctorates in that field. They represent 67 percent of doctoral degrees in education, and 60 percent in social and behavioral sciences.
The same economic forces that drove more women into the labor market sent greater numbers of them into doctoral study, "aware of the increased need for them to make money for their families," Hill said.
Women approached parity with men in law and medical studies in recent years, said Jacqueline E. King, an assistant vice president at the American Council on Education. "Doctoral fields couldn't be far behind," she said.
Liz Nguyen, 25, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland in chemistry, a field in which women have made gains but remain outnumbered. Many of her classmates are women, but the older generation of senior faculty is made up virtually of all men. "It was always just a male-dominated field," she said.
Nguyen said the women she has met in doctoral study are "very strong-willed women. I never saw women like that growing up."
Men may be staging a modest comeback. First-time enrollment in graduate education grew at a slightly faster rate for them than for women in 2009, reversing a long-term trend that has favored female enrollment. Meanwhile, the broader gender gap in higher education seems to be stabilizing. The split in enrollment and degrees remained constant through much of the past decade at about 57 percent women, according to a study King wrote this year.
"In general, higher education has expanded over the years to meet demand from both women and men," she said. "I don't expect that it's ever going to be all women."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.