Among adults 25 and older, 29 percent of all women in the U.S. had 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 U.S. 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 surpass men in total advanced degrees this year, even though they still lag significantly in several subcategories 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 have now progressively spread upward to older age groups. That could have wide ramifications for gender relations and the workplace, from more working mothers and child-care needs to a greater focus on pay disparities.
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.
Women now represent a majority in the nation's work force, and they have consistently outpaced men in employment rates in the current economic downturn that some researchers are now 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, the 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 are also 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 last August, although it remains double the average unemployment gap seen in the previous three recessions.