The education gains have opened up workplace opportunities and redefined family roles.
WASHINGTON - For the first time, American women have passed men in gaining advanced college degrees as well as bachelor's degrees, part of a trend that is helping redefine who goes off to work and who stays home with the kids.
Census figures released Tuesday highlight the latest education milestone for women, who began to pass men in college enrollment in the early 1980s. The findings come amid record shares of women in the workplace and a steady decline in stay-at-home mothers.
The educational gains for women are giving them greater access to a wider range of jobs, contributing to a shift of traditional gender roles at home and work. Based on one demographer's estimate, the number of stay-at-home dads who are the primary caregivers for their children reached nearly 2 million last year. The official census tally was 154,000, based on a narrower definition that excludes those working part time or looking for jobs.
"The gaps we're seeing in bachelor's and advanced degrees mean that women will be better protected against the next recession," 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.
"Men now might be the ones more likely to be staying home, doing the more traditional child rearing," he said.
Degrees by gender
Among adults 25 and older, 10.6 million U.S. women have master's degrees or higher, compared with 10.5 million men. Measured by shares, about 10.2 percent of women have advanced degrees compared to 10.9 percent of men -- a gap steadily narrowing in recent years. Women still trail men in professional subcategories such as business, science and engineering.
When it comes to finishing college, roughly 20.1 million women have bachelor's degrees, compared with nearly 18.7 million men -- a gap of more than 1.4 million that has remained steady in recent years. Women first passed men in bachelor's degrees in 1996.
Some researchers, including Perry, have dubbed the current economic slump a "man-cession" because of the huge job losses in the male-dominated construction and manufacturing industries, which require less schooling. Measured by pay, women with full-time jobs now make 78.2 percent of what men earn, up from about 64 percent in 2000.
Unemployment for men currently stands at 9.3 percent compared to 8.3 percent for women, who now make up half of the U.S. workforce.
Drop in stay-at-home moms
The number of stay-at-home moms, meanwhile, dropped last year for a fourth year in a row to 5 million, or roughly one in four married-couple households. That's down from nearly half of such households in 1969. By the census' admittedly outmoded measure, the number of stay-at-home dads has remained largely flat in recent years, making up less than 1 percent of married-couple households.
Whatever the exact numbers, Census Bureau researchers have detailed a connection between women's educational attainment and declines in traditional stay-at-home parenting. For instance, they found that stay-at-home mothers today are more likely to be young, foreign-born Hispanics who lack college degrees than professional women who set aside careers for fulltime family life after giving birth.
The census numbers come from the government's Current Population Survey as of March 2010. Among other findings:
• Among adults 25 and older, women are more likely than men to have finished high school, 87.6 percent to 86.6 percent.
• Broken down by race and ethnicity, 52 percent of Asian-Americans had at least a bachelor's degree. That's compared to 33 percent for non-Hispanic whites, 20 percent for blacks and 14 percent for Hispanics.