Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

U.S. women near milestone in the college-educated labor force

(10’000 Hours via Getty Images)

Note: For the latest data on women in the college-educated labor force, read our 2022 post.

Women are approaching a milestone in gender parity. 2019 will likely be the first year in which they are a majority of the college-educated labor force. As of the first quarter of 2019, 29.5 million women in the labor force had at least a bachelor’s degree, effectively matching the number of college-educated men in the workforce (29.3 million), according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Women are now half of the U.S. college-educated labor force

This milestone matters for women because educational attainment is highly correlated with income. Women now comprise 50.2% of the college-educated labor force, up from 45.1% in 2000. They remain less than half (46.7%) of the overall workforce ages 25 and older.

While women have only recently reached parity with men in the college-educated workforce, they have been a majority of college-educated adults for more than a decade. Women first received more than half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in the 1981-82 academic year; today they earn about 57% of bachelor’s degrees. The number of college-educated women in the adult population (ages 25 and older) surpassed the number of college-educated men in 2007.

Since there are more college-educated women than men, why has it taken more than 10 years for women to reach parity in the college-educated workforce? One important factor is that college-educated women are less likely than their male counterparts to be in the labor force. In 2018, 69.9% of college-educated women were in the labor force, compared with 78.1% of college-educated men. The number of women with at least a bachelor’s degree would have had to significantly outstrip the number of college-educated men to offset this labor force participation difference.

Though women are at parity with men in the overall college-educated labor force, they lag significantly behind in many specific occupations. For example, women account for only 25% of college-educated workers in computer occupations and 15% of college-educated workers in engineering occupations. In some other occupations, such as office and administrative support and health care practitioners and technicians, women represent the majority of college-educated workers.

Women’s growing representation among the college-educated labor force has important economic implications for individual workers and the economy. Census Bureau figures show that the typical worker (ages 25 and older) earned $41,900 in 2017, but a worker with at least a bachelor’s degree earned $61,300. (The earnings bump associated with a bachelor’s degree is larger for men than women. The median earnings of college-educated men is $74,900, compared with $50,200 for men overall. The typical college-educated woman earns $51,600, versus $36,000 for women overall.) About a third (35%) of U.S. adults 25 and older are college educated, but these individuals generate 57% of the economy’s earnings – $4.7 trillion out of $8.4 trillion total labor market earnings in 2017.

U.S. women may be far from parity in many facets of society – particularly in top positions in business and government – but they are making inroads in the upper echelon of the labor market. The growing number of college-educated women in the labor force translates into greater earning potential for women overall and could eventually contribute to the narrowing of the gender wage gap.