The most exhaustive study ever done on a generation of American men and women has concluded that the quality of women's educational achievement is markedly superior to men's, but that the labor market rewards them much less than it does men.

The National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 describes the educational and labor market experiences of that class through the time its members were 32 years old. They were surveyed six times from 1972 to 1986. High school records and test scores were surveyed as were transcripts for all the members who attended any post-secondary training through 1984. There were 22,652 students in the 1972 sample, 12,599 in the group whose post-secondary transcripts were studied and 12,841 who were surveyed in the final 1986 group.

"It's the richest archive ever assembled on a generation of Americans," said Clifford Adelman, senior associate in the office of research at the Department of Education, who conducted the study. The findings about how men and women function differently and how they are rewarded differently have profound implications not only for today's work force, he said, but also for the future work force in which 64 percent of the new entrants will be women.

There is, he said, a "fundamental belief in America that education matters and has enduring effects." The study found that women "buy into that belief system more than men do. They are much better students than men at all levels of school and they take education much more seriously. When you look at all areas of school, even calculus and statistics in college, women do better. Even if they say they have less confidence in their ability to do math. That's only what they say. Watch what they do."

The surveys examined a range of attitudes, expectations, influences and beliefs and found that women were more realistic than men. While women had lower educational expectations, in part because of their parents' attitudes, they got more scholarships and completed advanced degrees much faster than men.

"Men tend to strut. They tend to have a more inflated sense of their personal abilities, they tend to believe that whatever they aspire to will in fact come true," Adelman said. "People say men have more self-confidence than women. I don't necessary call that self-confidence. That's unrealism. People who are more realistic tend to do what they say they're going to do. If you look at the history of this generation, women did more than they said they would do, men did less."

The labor market salary surveys, which looked at 33 job categories, compared men to women who had no children and who had been consistently employed from 1979 to 1986. It found that men were almost always paid more than women, even when the women were better qualified educationally, and women had a higher rate of unemployment. In the report's discussion of wage discrimination, Adelman suggests recasting "the central observation: it's not merely the case that women are equally qualified -- they are better qualified." But the mean earnings of men in 1985 in the survey were $25,022, and $18,970 for women with no children. Women with children had mean earnings of $15,016. There was one bright note: women who earned at least eight math credits in college earned on average at least 16.5 percent more than men with the same math background. "For women, more math means more money, particularly in business careers," Adelman said.

"There is no question women far more than men come into the work force willing to succeed on the basis of what they know, not who they know, and willing to share their knowledge." He said the survey bears that out and explodes the myth that women don't care about monetary reward. "They value it more than men do.

"If you want to encourage the kind of workplace contributions women can make that argues for more equitable rewards in pay for women." Harder to do than that, he says, will be restructuring the workplace "to recognize women's contributions and to adopt an attitude of sharing knowledge that can only benefit the entire workplace. Political {savvy} is rewarded now and knowledge-intensive labor is not. This is not an equity issue. It's an economic vitality issue. We've got to undergo a transformation in the workplace in which we share knowledge and develop both products and services on the basis of shared knowledge. And reward the style that produces this kind of productivity."

American women are far better educated than most of our trade competitors. "Then we wind up underutilizing women in the work force," said Adelman. "We've got an incredible advantage that we have not realized. I don't think we've recognized the quality of knowledge investment women have made."