WASHINGTON -- Women are now just as likely as men to have completed college and to hold an advanced degree, part of an accelerating trend of educational gains that have shielded women from recent job losses. Yet they continue to lag behind men in pay.
Among adults 25 and older, 29 percent of women in the United States have at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 30 percent of men, according to 2009 census figures released Tuesday. Measured by raw numbers, women already surpass men in undergraduate degrees by roughly 1.2 million.
Women also have drawn even with men in holding advanced degrees. Women represented roughly half of those in the United States with a master's degree or higher, due largely to years of steady increases in women opting to pursue a medical or law degree.
At current rates, women could pass men in total advanced degrees this year, even though they still trail significantly in several categories such as business, science and engineering.
"It won't be long before women dominate higher education and every degree level up to Ph.D.," said Mark Perry, an economics professor at the University of Michigan-Flint who is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. "They are getting the skills that will protect them from future downturns."
While young women have been exceeding men in college enrollment since the early 1980s, the educational gains now have spread progressively upward to older age groups. That could have wide ramifications in the workplace: more working mothers, increased child-care needs and a greater focus on pay disparities among them.
Women with full-time jobs now have weekly earnings equal to 80.2 percent of what men earn, up slightly from 2008 but lower than a high of 81 percent in 2005.
"I don't know if we can be heartened by the educational gains, because it is persistent wage discrimination that is driving women to get a higher education," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. "As more women enter the workplace, I think they will realize the unfairness of the situation they're experiencing and demand change."
Women outnumber men in the United States -- among adults 25 and older, 103 million are women, 96 million are men.
And women now represent a majority in the nation's work force. They consistently have outpaced men in employment rates in the current economic downturn that some researchers now are dubbing a "man-cession." The main reason is that the male-dominated construction and manufacturing industries, which require less schooling, shed millions of jobs after the housing bust.
Still, despite recent gains, women's advantage in the work force is expected to be temporary as job losses spread to other sectors, such as state and local government, where women are more highly represented. Some men also are returning to school for degrees in female-dominated industries such as nursing and teaching, which tend to fare better during recessions.
Unemployment for men now stands at 10.7 percent compared with 8.6 percent for women. That 2.1 percentage point gap is down from a record of 2.7 in August but remains far higher than in the previous three recessions, when women were almost as likely as men to be out of work.
The findings are the latest to highlight a shift of traditional roles of the sexes, caused partly by massive job losses in the Great Recession. The effects have included a growing number of working moms who are the sole breadwinners in their families, declining births and small increases in stay-at-home dads.
Many women returning to the work force say they are now realizing how critical it is to get good training and a higher education. Linda Lorde, 62, of York, S.C., retired as a U.S. postmaster three years ago, but began looking for a new job after her husband was laid off as a newspaper distribution manager and their 401(k) accounts shriveled in the recession.
Aiming for a fresh career in hotel management, Lorde is now taking college-level business finance courses and in the meantime is the family's sole wage-earner in customer service for local companies. "In this tough economy, you have to know how to compete," she said.
Other census findings:
--The share of women who hold an advanced degree has doubled to 10.1 percent from 5 percent in 1980. In 1960, the share was 1.7 percent.
--Eighty-seven percent of adults have a high school diploma or more. A higher proportion of women (87 percent) than men (86 percent) have at least a high school education, a reversal that first appeared in 2000.
--Broken down by race, more than half, or 53 percent, of Asians have a bachelor's degree or higher. That's compared with 33 percent for non-Hispanic whites, 19 percent for blacks and 13 percent for Hispanics.
The shifts come as Congress considers legislation that would make it easier for women to file wage-discrimination lawsuits and empower the government to collect payroll data from private corporations. The bill passed the House last year, but has stalled in the Senate.
Jane Henrici, a study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, said continued efforts are needed to ensure that women can compete for jobs on an equal footing, such as flexible work policies involving sick-day and on-site child care, as well as training for future green jobs.