April 17, 2012 Practice Points

Female Academic Achievement and Earnings

By Claudia Hartleben

“Why do women perform so much better in school than their male classmates? And why hasn’t this academic prowess translated into higher earnings for women than for men?” The answer to the first question may supply the answer to the second, according to a recent article, “Women’s Successes in School . . . Bleed Away in Their Paychecks,” recently published in the National Journal.

Considering nearly 30 years has elapsed since women began their educational climb, patience is no longer an acceptable solution for the income disparities between women and men, suggests the author. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, men with a bachelors degree earned a median $62,440, versus $46,830 for women, among year-round employees over the age of 25. Additionally, women with a master’s degree earned less, on average, than men with only a B.A. Despite these statistics, however, disparity doesn’t become immediately apparent out of college. In fact, young, single, college-educated women without children earn close to or even more than their male counterparts, says Nancy Folbre, an economist at the University of Massachusetts.

It is no mystery that things change as women approach their child-rearing years. Indeed, career paths, particularly in higher-paying, formerly male-dominated fields, are often timed in ways that make it harder to serve the dual roles of mother and professional. Lawyers aiming for partner, doctors completing their residencies, and MBAs climbing the corporate ladder all face the obstacles of reaching those goals well into their 30s, toward the end of a woman’s childbearing years.

Does awareness of these difficulties cause women to self-select out of more lucrative professions? Paula England, a New York University sociologist, says it does. Her research indicates that undergraduate majors and fields of Ph.D. study “continue to be very sex-segregated” and women continue pursuing majors that lead to lower-paying employment. Self-selection is also seen in education at the professional level. Women receive only 37 percent of MBAs, women doctors gravitate toward family practice over higher-paying surgery, and “freshly minted female lawyers tend to choose public-interest law over a corporate practice,” according to the author.

The author suggests that “[t]he answer may lie in a fault line that runs through the U.S. education system from pre-K to Ph.D.: a mismatch between qualities that the schools reward versus those that the real world will prize.” Thus, although girls outperform boys in school due to their superior communication and interpersonal skills, they also succeed “because of a greater willingness to follow rules, line up quietly, and listen.” The latter skills don’t count for a lot in a quick, globally competitive economy that “rewards assertiveness and innovation over sitting still or knowing which bubbles to fill in on a standardized test.” “Women need boldness to strike into male-dominated majors,” the author states.

So, what about the obstacles of child-rearing? Mentorship and planning ahead can make a big difference, suggests Mary Ann Mason, a University of California at Berkeley law professor, and the first woman to serve as the school’s graduate dean. “Young women are unaware of how difficult it becomes fitting childbirth into your career plans. But . . . if you think in advance, it becomes easier.” How exactly does it become easier to juggle the converging timeline of reaching the pinnacle of your career and raising children? The author doesn’t offer an answer. But getting back to money talk, women with mentors saw their salaries rise 27 percent higher than women without, according to Catalyst, the women’s professional organization.

Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, income, children, women, education

Claudia Hartleben works at Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP in Washington, D.C.

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