Female share of US bachelor’s degrees, 1971 to 2019

Here is a new animated “bar chart race” visualization of the female share of US bachelor’s degrees by 16 major academic fields of study from 1971 to 2019 according to recently updated data from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. See a static version of the female shares of bachelor’s degrees by field and commentary at my post on CD earlier this week. (Note: You can re-start the visualization by refreshing your browser.)

Here are a few takeaways on the visualization above:

1. Significant upward trends in the female share of degrees over time since 1971 include the fields of psychology (from 44.8% in 1971 to 79.1% in 2019, a new record high), Biology (from 29.1% in 1971 to 63.2% in 2019, a record high), Architecture (from 11.9% to 48.1%, a record high), Business (from 9.1% to 46.7%), Engineering (from 0.8% to 22.7%, a new high), and Physics (13.8% to 40.6%). Slightly less significant upward trends in the female share of degrees include the fields of Math (from 38.0% to 42.5%), Computer Science (13.6% to 20.6%) and Social Studies (Economics, History, Political Science and Sociology) from 36.8% to 51.1%, a new high.

2. The female share of Computer Science degrees follows a unique trend – it more than doubled from 13.6% in 1971 to 37.1% in 1984, and then decreased steadily and stabilized at about 18-19% a decade ago. In 2019, the female share of Computer Science degrees at 20.6% exceeded a 20% share for the first time since 2006.

3. What I think is most remarkable about the trends in the visualization is the relative stability of the female shares of bachelor degrees over nearly the last half-century especially for at least seven of the most popular college majors for women (Health Professions, Education, Public Administration, Psychology, Foreign Languages, English, Communications, and Visual & Performing Arts). In 2019, the female share of degrees in those seven fields ranged from 62.2% for Arts and 84.3% for Health Professions.

4. What’s also especially noteworthy about the visualization is the remarkable stability in the female share of degrees in almost all of 16 academic fields over the last 20 years, a period when the long-term trends seem to have stabilized. The only two exceptions to the stabilization of the female share of degrees since the turn of the century are the increase in the female share of Architecture degrees from 37.6% in 2000 to 48.1% in 2019 and the decrease in the female share of Computer Science degrees from 28.1% in 2000 to 20.6% in 2019. But follow the bars for any of the other 14 college majors over the last several decades and you’ll see that there is very little variation in the female share of bachelor’s degrees from 2000-2019. What makes most “bar chart race” visualizations interesting is to watch important and significant changes over time in the variables. What I think makes this “bar chart race” so interesting is to watch the lack of significant changes over time, especially the last 20 years!

Bottom Line: Who’d a-thunk it? It’s almost as if men and women have different academic interests and abilities, and those gender differences are reflected in relatively stable self-selections of different college majors, especially over the most recent 20 years. Further, if these fairly stable trends in college majors by gender since 2000 reflect the voluntary “revealed preferences” of millions of college students selecting majors that best suit their interests and abilities, why are some of these outcomes selectively considered to be a problem in higher education, e.g., the “shortage” of women in certain STEM fields (Engineering and Computer Science …. but not Biology or Health Sciences)? Why are there such massive efforts and such a disproportionate share of campus resources, funding, and scholarships devoted to “socially engineering” outcomes that might realistically be unnatural, undesirable, and unachievable, i.e., the efforts coercing more women to major in Engineering and Computer Science? And where’s the equivalent concern about the significant male under-representation in nine of the academic fields above? And where’s the concern about the overall male under-representation in higher education and the large and growing college degree gap favoring women? The Department of Education data show that men received only 42.7% of bachelor’s degrees in 2019, or fewer than 75 degrees for every 100 degrees earned by women.

Prediction: Twenty years from now, the female share of US college degrees will look pretty similar to the remarkably stable trends of the last 20 years, despite the efforts to selectively “socially engineer” different outcomes in engineering and computer science.