Q&A: Researcher Finds Gap Between Women’s Schooling, Attainment

June 19, 1991 4 min read
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A ConversationwithClifford Adelman

In a new report comparing women’s and men’s post-high-school careers, a U.S. Education Department researcher found that, although women did better academically than men in high school and in college, they did not achieve the same degree of success in the labor market, earning less money than men and experiencing more unemployment.

The report compares with men only those women who had not had children by age 32.

The new report, entitled “Women at Thirtysomething: Paradoxes of Attainment,” is based on the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, an assembly of data from surveys conducted throughout the 1970’s and in 1986. “Women at Thirtysomething” will be a chapter in a collection of studies based on the surveys, Archives of a Generation, to be published later this year.

The report’s author, Clifford Adelman, is the director of the Division of Higher Education in the Education Department’s office of research. He spoke about the study with Staff Writer Millicent Lawton

Q. What sets this study apart from others on status attainment or return on investment on education?

A. First of all, it’s not a status-attainment study. ... [T]his is a study of the relationship between the quality of effort in education and what happens to people in the labor market. And it’s set in the context of national economic development. ...

Women are going to be 64 percent of the new entrants to the workforce over the next 10 years. We beat ourselves up that we’re not prepared to compete with other countries; yet, if you look at the knowledge content and quality of effort that women bring to work along with their attitudes toward work, you see that we have a tremendous advantage over our major competitors, if we are willing to recognize women’s achievements and to reward them appropriately in the labor market. ...

Now, why and how is this study different? Number one, there’s never been the database that could do this. The National Longitudinal Study on the High School Class of ’72 remains the richest archive ever assembled on a generation of Americans. What makes it rich for these purposes in particular is the college-transcript sample. That means we know what people have studied, when they went to school, what degrees they got or didn’t get, and we know them for sure.

Q. What is the most surprising or stunning thing about the achievements of these women?

A. We run around the country, and we tell kids and teenagers that, if only they do well in school, that’s really going to make the difference in life and in their careers. And that, in this generation, did not happen for women.

They outperformed men right down the line. They believed that education resulted in personal benefits, they invested more and in a higher quality way than men did, and it didn’t pay off the same way.

However, there are some exceptions. ... The one about comparing people within the same occupation who’ve had mathel10lematics background in college--that was a significant one, [showing that women achieve pay equity in some occupations as a correlate of the amount of mathematics they studied in college].

Q. The fact that the investment in education didn’t pay off for these women--that’s not the fault of their education or their interest in it, is it?

A. No. That’s my whole point. ... My position is that, in terms of general access to higher education and general attainment, the issue of educational equity is passe. The labor-market issues, however, are hardly passe at all. They are right on the front burner, and that’s what we’ve got to focus on, and that’s a lot more difficult to focus on. Those are really challenging issues.

Q. You found that, among the high-school students who took more than four semesters of math, science, and foreign languages, women still outnumber men in the top class ranks. What is the significance of that finding?

A. My point is no matter which analytical variable you use, whatever subgroup of high-school students you want to use, women outperform men. ...

Sure, fewer women than men study math. Nonetheless, of those who studied as much college-preparatory [courses], took more than the minimum college-preparatory curriculum in math, women outranked men by 20 percentage points.

Q. Looking at some of the Scholastic Aptitude Test data, I was interested in the fact that, going from the lowest to the highest socioeconomic status, the percentage of women scoring in the higher bands of the sat increases more than is the case for men. Can you explain that and its significance?

A. Usually, the higher your socioeconomic status, the higher your sat scores. ... So, if your parents are college graduates, chances are they’re going to use four-syllable words around the table at dinner occasionally. ... And it inevitably seeps in by osmosis.

Now, given that that’s true ... we would expect that, as you move up the socioeconomic status, the percentage of those going on or performing better [should] increase. It turns out to be more true for women than men. That means that, perhaps, there’s a greater osmosis around the dinner table for teenage girls than there is for teenage boys to what’s being said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 1991 edition of Education Week as Q&A: Researcher Finds Gap Between Women’s Schooling, Attainment


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