The gender gap in higher education, which is expected to grow in coming years, affects life on campus. Some young women say it’s harder to find dates. But what is most puzzling is what life after graduation holds in store.
Two years ago, as a freshman at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Tanya Efken ran for vice president on an all-woman slate for student government offices.
Their ticket was a first at the university, as was their election by 71 percent of the vote, as Miss Efken recalls. First as vice president and this past school year as president, she has observed more women on campus “emerging and at least running for leadership positions and slowly winning those positions.”
It was probably bound to happen, given that women have slowly become the majority at Southeast. Women make up 62 percent of undergraduates there now.
Thirty years ago, college was a male preserve, by about 55 percent to 45 percent nationally. Today, it’s a woman’s world by about the same margin, and the spread is projected to widen in coming years.
Because the gender gap in higher education crept up over a generation, it got little notice until it became too big to ignore. Only in the last year or so have experts begun to talk about it, speculating about its causes, consequences for male-female relationships and implications for society.
To go to Southeast is to see the picture right away. Most of the students strolling the campus, eating in the cafeterias and socializing in the lounges are female. Interviewed randomly, most students of both sexes say the overwhelming presence of women is obvious to them as well.
Thomas Haupt, a freshman from Jackson, Mo., finds the disparity “no big deal,” a sentiment echoed by several other male students.
His girlfriend, Barb Seckel of St. Louis, said she has several classes where only a couple of students are guys and that she feels “more confident in classes with a whole bunch of girls.” On the other hand, she said, the shortage of men makes it hard for her roommate to get dates. She counts herself lucky to have found Mr. Haupt.
Jamie Rogers, another freshman from Jackson, said that “it’s easier for guys” at Southeast. “You’ve got three girls going after a guy,” she said. “The predators should not outnumber the prey.”
One young man who could be potential “prey,” Brian Friedman of Chesterfield, said a lot of guys at Southeast “play the field.”
It’s at a campus like Southeast that this and other effects of the sex imbalance show up in sharpest relief. The students there are mostly in their late teens and early 20s prime dating and mating years. And with most of them living on or near campus, they have ample opportunity to mix and mingle. Couples happen.
Some, like Miss Efken and senior Drew Griffin, get engaged. Other students speak fondly of boyfriends and girlfriends back home or at other colleges and universities. For those who are not attached but might want to be, campus demographics clearly favor the males.
Students’ descriptions of Southeast’s social scene bear out the research of David C. Geary, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He studies, among other things, “operational sex ratios” the proportions of available males and available females in various species and their impact on “mating dynamics.”
Mr. Geary says the outnumbered sex always sets the rules of social engagement.
“The minority has the upper hand because it’s a supply-and-demand sort of thing,” he says.
Women now outnumber men in graduate schools, and they are closing in on the male majorities in professional schools. It’s not that men are dropping out of higher education. They too are going to college in greater numbers than ever. It’s just that women have surpassed them. Observers debate whether this is cause to celebrate women’s gain or lament men’s shortfall.
Thomas Mortenson, senior scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, says boys suffer educationally from a lack of role models not just at home, but in schools, where most of the teachers are women.
He also sees girls as taking school seriously while boys “fool around.” Meanwhile, “the world is changing and the guys aren’t, and it’s changing in ways that benefit women and disadvantage men,” he said. Jobs are shifting from male-oriented goods-producing jobs to service work.
Mr. Mortenson says liberal arts colleges, female bastions historically, are watching the sex trends especially closely along with their female students, who don’t want to go to school in an overwhelmingly feminine environment.
“Quietly on the side, people at liberal arts colleges are telling me that they’re doing a little bit of informal affirmative action for men,” if only adding athletic programs to attract them, he says.
More dramatically apparent is the fact that women nationally are now earning at least 130,000 more bachelor’s degrees every year than are men. At some point in the future, this phenomenon could translate into a population in which women are substantially better educated than men.
The trend portends, for one thing, a shrinking “mating pool” for those educated women, Mr. Geary says. This is because “when women decide to get married, their preference is to marry men who are a little older or in a position where they will make more money and be upwardly socially mobile.”
He foresees that “the competition for the men who are going to do very well will be very intense.” Options for women who lose out, he says, will be to marry men of lesser attainments and prospects than their own or not marry at all.
Mr. Geary also predicts that educated women who marry will have fewer children and that some who don’t marry will have children regardless.
“The more women have access to resources, the less, really, they need men to raise their kids,” he says.
But education doesn’t necessarily translate into economic prowess. As Mr. Geary points out, it’s possible in today’s high-tech economy for men without college education to get into highly paid technical jobs.
Meanwhile, college women still get more degrees in the social sciences and liberal arts. This keeps them in lower-paying jobs, says Ray Hilgert, professor of management and industrial relations at Washington University.
Even in business, women go into finance, accounting and human resources rather than sales, marketing and manufacturing, which offer better, quicker paths to the top. He calls this “the glass wall” effect, self-imposed and compounded when women have children and decide to drop out of the work force, even temporarily.
Mr. Hilgert also believes in the “glass ceiling.”
“There’s a certain amount of male dominance that’s there, and anybody who says there isn’t, isn’t being honest about it,” he says.
Distributed by Scripps Howard.