Women Have More Education and Power Than Ever: Why Do They Still Feel Embattled?

More women than men will continue to graduate from college between now and 2050.

One of the most frustrating things about the War on Women is its laser focus on women’s reproductive rights, as if we still lived in pre-1921 America, and women could not control their bodies, vote, or own property. Statistics however show a far different picture. Our grandchildren will live in a world comprised of highly educated, high-earning women, and less-educated men.

Liza Mundy, Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and the author ofThe Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family, has analyzed research showing that a growing number of women out-earn their spouses, and that by 2050, in the overwhelming majority of countries, more women than men will complete a college education.

dynamic chart based on research funded by the European Research Council shows this trend.

Male vs Female levels of education 1970

In 1970, the number of blue (male) college graduates in most countries greatly outnumbered females. The lone outlying red dot where more males than females graduated from college is Canada. The second outlier red dot is Norway, the third, Finland.

Male vs Female college graduates worldwide 2012

Fast-forward to 2012. Notice the shrinking number of blue dots, and explosive growth in red dots, along with the more than doubling of percentage of graduates along the y-axis. This shows that in the past 42 years, more women than men have attended and graduated from college worldwide than ever before.

Japan and Singapore are the two red dots toward the top. The next cluster below them is comprised of the 1970 leader, Canada, along with South Korea, Ireland, and France. Where is the U.S.? In the middle, right next to the Russian Federation, pretty much in the same place it was in 1970.

More women than men graduate from college in the U.S. and Canada, but our rates of college graduation as a percentage of the population are in the middle of countries internationally, far from the top.

Where are we headed, with 42 years of data already collected, projected out to 2050?

The pattern is similar, although only a handful of countries with predominantly male college graduates remains.

Number of women vs men college graduates 2050

The blue countries in 2050 include Chad, Cambodia, Benin, and Mali. Bangladesh is the lone outlying blue dot where the highest percentage of male college graduates is anticipated 40 years from now.

I am one of the 38% of women who out earned her husband, and am more educated than he. I have been engaged in business, and nonprofit start-ups and expansions for my entire life. I have had not one, but three separate careers in which I have achieved some success.

Like anyone else, sometimes I wish I could lessen my responsibilities and workload, but I turned away from the Jane Austen-style project of marrying someone more educated, wealthy, and powerful than myself at a very young age. I always envisioned myself being the exact person I am right now.

The charts show that the 20th Century superpowers, the U.S. and Russia, are stuck in the middle of the international educational pack and are not expected to advance in the years to come. Why? A quick perusal of Pravda shows that Russians are fonder of sexy pinups and UFO stories than the type of articles found in The Economist. Here in the U.S., Honey Boo-Boo, whose mother has three chins, has rocketed to stardom on a diet of “sketti” and Mountain Dew mixed with Red Bull.

I’m going to go out on a limb. Women here in the U.S., and to a certain extent, in Russia as well, achieved rights to education and self-determination earlier than in many other countries. Writing in The Atlantic, Liza Mundy asks, “Why do some feminists get uneasy when women make progress?” As part of the academic establishment, Liza’s criticisms of traditional feminism are muted.

I’ll go farther than Mundy and say that traditional or old-school feminism, with its emphasis on birth control, resistance to Victorian moral strictures, and refusal to recognize clear, dramatic demographic changes, is destructive, not constructive. Sending out a thundering message of weakness, dependency, and incapacity to women contributes to this country’s mediocre performance in objective measures of economic and social well being.

To quote the Rev. Jesse Jackson, “If they can believe it and conceive it, they can achieve it.” Every time traditional Western feminists write or research or blast out propaganda like it’s 1972, we run the risk of another young woman losing the capacity to believe and conceive of what she, not they, want her to do with her life.

Traditional western feminism operates from a basis of fear—fear that women will be forced to have babies they don’t want or can’t care for, fear that they will earn less than a man in a similar position, fear that they will be verbally or physically abused, suffer sexual harassment at work, or be victimized sexually.

All of these are dangers. They are bad. No one ever succeeded in any endeavor, be it obtaining a degree, establishing a business, learning a skill, completing a project, or raising a child, when operating out of fear. Other countries don’t share this fear-based feminism, and are not beholden to fighting the battles of 1890, 1930, 1950 or 1972 over and over again.

Now it is time for women of all ages to set aside fears someone else has placed on us, and take responsibility for our own lives. We are, and will be the educated ones, and have almost overwhelming challenges. There is a lot of work to do.

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Women Have More Education and Power Than Ever: Why Do They Still Feel Embattled? — 7 Comments

  1. I was with you write until the end. The reason for the US struggling on this chart is the very uneven impact of the issues that feminism of the 1970s addressed. I bet that if you broke down these statistics by states you’d find a very different picture, and one that mapped neatly onto the availability of cheap or free contraception.

  2. I can’t say I agree with the logic of your argument here. Essentially, you’re saying that fear, because it is paralyzing, will restrict change rather than motivate change. This seems plausible. And yet the attack on reproductive rights, something feared, sparked anger and a response in the polls. Awareness of danger, the pervasiveness of sexual violence, and other things to fear, make people take both precautions and action. Fear can be paralyzing, but it can also be motivating.
    I think, rather that fear, what you find troublesome is the image of women as helpless victims of a male oriented culture. Telling someone that they have no ability to make their own destiny can be paralyzing. But the model of feminism is one where people saw a problem, joined together and took action against that problem. That’s not helpless. Taking responsibility for our own lives is the first step, the second is taking responsibility for the direction and actions of our country, and that means taking action. Having a model for a method of taking rather successful action is not a negative thing.

  3. Assuming that a college degree confers wealth and power is over-simplifying. A degree in early childhood education is a wonderful thing and can lead to a fulfilling career, but typically one where you’ll earn less than an engineer. I work in high tech, where women are scarce and run into a lot of barriers. Very few young women are majoring in engineering in school, and those that do are more likely to leave the industry than men are. This isn’t because of feminists, for heavens sake!

  4. Why do we feel embattled? Because it is clear that in the US some of the core rights of women (birth control, access to abortion, even the definition of rape) are still not permanent. Events of the past six months have made that quite evident. Do I have to add links? Surely not. I reside in Virginia, a benighted state famed for enacting the state-mandated vaginal probe. And I am livid.
    We gained the ground — but we can lose it. We must not forget. And we must never let our elected representatives forget. I want them to think of ‘ladyparts’ with fear and cringing. Put your hand politically ‘down there’, gents, and get it amputated.

  5. I see the point that you’re trying to make, but I think that you’re correlating variables but leaving out other important variables that also correlate, and explain a part of your result. As you said, looking at the entire US population the percentage of college graduates is middling, but women are outperforming men. Whereas if you look worldwide (though the fact that we have no labels for countries for the points in your graph is not helpful), women continue to out-degree men…could that have anything to do with the pretty well studied phenomenon that a woman needs a higher level of education to match the income of a lower educated man in many countries including the US?

    In that case warnings that women will be underpaid, etc, are exactly what’s driving women to push themselves harder than the men around them. It also probably does not help that the US is a country where traditionally you haven’t needed a college education to gain a good income, and the system itself is set up to make it very difficult to afford to go to school or pay off your degree afterwards. That if anything would drive under-education at a country-wide level relative to the rest of the world, not feminism.

    Meanwhile statistics that show how badly women are outperforming men on traditional measures of skill just make it all the more baffling how little power they have at political and business levels.

  6. I’m one of those hairy-legged 70s feminists myself, so I feel a lot of kinship with the old timey worrywarts who tell younger women to take off that push-up bra and those stiletto heels and try to look more businesslike. You know. Like a man. That’s how we had to do it forty years ago.

    But this is a new breed of feminist. They are standing on our shoulders, thank goodness, and thank goodness they don’t fear the things we feared. They can believe, conceive, and achieve without stumbling over the internal hurdles we grew up with. They also can use women’s power in ways we wouldn’t have dared.

    When I was entering the work force, if a woman dressed “provocatively” or a man got aroused looking at her or working near her, that was her problem, and she suffered accordingly.

    Now, a working woman dresses the way she pleases, and if the VP sitting next to her in a meeting whangs up a boner, it’s his problem. And a big one. And…she knows that, and she uses it. It’s her power over him now, not his power over her.

    I call this “stiletto feminism” – a new kind of feminism I don’t grok because I’m so damn old, I still have all the old fears in my head. I’m in awe of these kids. I’m happy they’re standing on my shoulders.

    Men of the old guard who tried to fight us down in the 70s are still alive, as we are, and they’re wildly thrashing, trying to vote down birth control as if it was 1969 again – guys in what Tony Fitzpatrick calls “the rape van.” They’ll yell until they’re dead. I hear them more loudly maybe because my ear is still tuned to that frequency.

    I think the stiletto feminists just roll right past ’em. And vote them out of office, as we do.