Perspective | Rising education narrows male-female earnings gap

In the late 1990s, education data showed a widening gender gap in higher education enrollment across the South. Women exceeded men not only among students in four-year universities but also in community colleges.

MDC, the Durham-based research nonprofit (at which I am a “senior fellow”), addressed what the data indicated in its State of the South 1998. To emphasize the point that women appeared to be adapting better than men to a changing economy, the MDC research team put its analysis under a pair of mildly clever headlines: “You’ve come a long way, ma’am” and “Son, you’re in a world of trouble.

Over the two subsequent decades, brain work continued to rise as muscle work faded. And now, fresh data, assembled and analyzed by the Pew Research Center, point to continued gains by women in the workplace — and hold lessons for high school and middle school educators in teaching and counseling young women and men.

“The growing presence of women in higher-skill occupations has contributed to more rapid wage growth for them in recent decades compared with men, and this helped to narrow the gender wage gap,” says the Pew report. It goes on, “Women currently hold an edge over men in certain skills and in schooling: They are more likely to hold jobs in which fundamental and social skills are more important, and a greater share of women than men have graduated from college.”

The Washington-based nonpartisan Pew Research Center conducts polling along with demographic and social science studies. Its report on rising demand for skilled workers and women’s gains, released last week, used Department of Labor and Census data to describe national trends. The report focuses tightly on gender, not on such factors as race, ethnicity and age.

The Pew Research team built its analysis not on specific occupations but on five major “families’’ of job skills: social skills of instructing, serving and negotiating; fundamental skills of critical thinking, writing and speaking; analytical skills of using science, math and technology design; managerial skills in dealing with people, time and resources; and mechanical skills of using equipment and monitoring operations.

Jobs requiring social and fundamental skills are growing rapidly and pay more. A new class of occupations has emerged for people with programming, science, systems analysis, and technology design skills. While men remain more concentrated in mechanical-skill jobs, the Pew report says, “demand for mechanical skills, such as repairing, troubleshooting and equipment maintenance, is on the wane.”

Of course, there are family-supporting job opportunities for men — and women — in blue-collar work. Expanding apprenticeships, for example, makes sense. The challenges facing North Carolina, a state still undergoing a profound transformation, is to align its educational institutions with the dynamic economy and to empower both young men and young women with the knowledge to make good decisions for their work careers and community lives.

“The share of American workers with a four-year college degree increased steadily from 1980 to 2018, especially among women,” says the report. “But while women’s earnings increased faster than men’s earnings over the period, a substantial gender wage gap remains.”

As the Pew researchers acknowledge, the persistence of a male-female earnings gap has to do with a complex set of factors, some difficult to measure, “driving a wedge.”  They point to the responsibilities of motherhood, gender stereotypes and discrimination, and differences in professional networking. Still, education has made a difference.

“A rising level of education among women is one reason why the gender wage gap closed from 1980 to 2018,” says the report. “In 1980, 16% of employed women ages 16 and older had completed four years of college education or more, compared with 20% of men. By 2018, 40% of women had completed at least a four-year college program, compared with 35% of men.”

Though the report is not an education policy paper, the payoff in bolstering pre-K-12 education and expanding access to higher education emerges from Pew’s outpouring of data. A society’s investment in schooling can have the transformative power both to propel women to continue to go “a long way’’ forward and to steer young men away from a “world of trouble.”

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC School of Media and Journalism, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.

Friday with Ferrel Perspective