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Degrees of Difference: Women, Men, and the Value of Higher Education

reviewed by Janelle Pham - June 20, 2018

coverTitle: Degrees of Difference: Women, Men, and the Value of Higher Education
Author(s): Nancy S. Niemi
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 1138697435, Pages: 216, Year: 2017
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Nancy Niemi’s Degrees of Difference: Women, Men and the Value of Higher Education offers a critical dissection of the relationship between higher education and gendered outcomes at a time when women’s college and university enrollment in the United States has exceeded that of men. Partnered with this trend are the dual myths of the “boy crisis” and the “female advantage” in higher education, supposedly marked by a lopsided conferral of benefits to women. Niemi asserts that the notion of women’s overachievement in higher education is an illusion, flipping the script to posit the development of a female disadvantage: as more women seek higher education, the value of the college credential diminishes. Moving beyond the statistics on educational attainment, the author draws back the curtain further, exposing the social, political, and economic ramifications of women’s educational achievement, namely the reproduction of male power in arenas beyond the Ivy tower.

In what essentially amounts to a sociocultural game of whack-a-mole, as women gain credentials and attain greater educational success, the patriarchy finds new ways of perpetuating itself, ducking down into its burrows only to reemerge in different arenas. Niemi argues that this has been illustrated in recent times by the shift in men’s pursuits to alternative sectors that are “independent, masculine, and not traditionally intellectual” (p. 90), characterizing men’s declining interest in college credentials as “an adult version of ‘if the girls have it, we don’t want it’” (p. 92). According to Niemi, America’s emphasis on individualism and higher education as the great equalizers effectively pulls the wool over our eyes, such that the gender problem in higher education is framed as a problem for men. This allows the patriarchy to continue to flourish, albeit in new and different environments.

Impressively mining the data on men’s and women’s educational achievement and social, economic, and political outcomes over the past 40 years, Niemi demonstrates the college credential as a weakened guarantor of social mobility for women, especially after accounting for racial and class disparities. Added to these dynamics is the broader cultural persistence of traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, and the role of college environments in reproducing, rather than challenging, gendered expectations for men and women. Niemi specifically cites how Western gendered ideologies regarding romance and motherhood structure men’s and women’s navigation of the college environment, exacerbating the diminishing value of a college credential for women via the gendered pay gap and the motherhood penalty.

Niemi proposes the “patriarchal equilibrium” as a theoretical framework to explain how women continue to remain at a disadvantage despite their successes in higher education and their growing participation in the workforce, namely through the “simultaneous and strategic alignment of counteractions that keep male privilege sovereign” (p. 28). Hardly a contemporary phenomenon, Degrees of Difference identifies the current boy crisis to be in its third iteration, placing the patriarchal equilibrium theory in historical context through a look back at men’s and women’s relationship to American higher education since the 19th century. At each turn, as disadvantaged populations (women, the poor, and people of color) have sought the economic and social benefits of higher education, the university has adapted to reinforce traditional gender norms. Niemi describes the institution of female-oriented courses like home economics at the turn of the 20th century and the rise of the “MRS degree” in the post-World War II era as part of the cultural impetus to reduce the threat of women’s infiltration into schools. These historic patterns reveal the paradox of education as both a pathway to equality and a site for reaffirming the traditional gender order.

To be sure, the data shows that men are enrolling in and completing college at lower rates than their female counterparts. However, rather than being indicative of a boy crisis, these decreased rates are viewed by Niemi as the result of men’s migration to alternative sites of education and/or employment. Consistent with the patriarchal equilibrium theory, Niemi posits that men’s decreased interest in formal higher education is matched by their migration to alternative arenas: digital education, entrepreneurial enterprise, traditionally masculine occupations (the police force, military, etc.), and the development of new industries separate from the need for formal education. These new or resurgent avenues are argued to be indicative of broader cultural norms affording men greater opportunities and greater pay for employment without a college credential, while a college credential has become necessary for women to prove their competence.

In her focus on the relationship between higher education credentials and the differences in men’s and women’s access to levels of power across social institutions, Niemi comes at the gendered problem in higher education from a different angle. Backed by a mountain of evidence to the contrary, Niemi’s book provides a timely wake-up call to those who cite women’s overrepresentation in higher education as evidence of the achievement of gender parity. Degrees of Difference offers an important addition to the higher education, gender, and masculinities literatures in its critical dismissal of the boy crisis in America’s schools. The author effectively connects the implications of patriarchal equilibrium to the state of higher education today, unraveling the notion of a female advantage in the process, and this framework is a definite strength for debunking the boy crisis and female advantage myths.

Niemi’s chapter on men’s migration to occupations that are arguably more independent and masculine and that don’t require a college degree is weak in places, namely when she points to organized crime and sports, two exceptional sectors of the labor market, as evidence of increasing occupational segregation. To be sure, Niemi also considers the history of other male-dominated arenas of work that do not require a college credential (such as the military or first-responder occupations) as well as the development of newer arenas, such as information technology or the largely independent, do-it-yourself gig economy. While these are more convincing examples of the cultural shifts taking place in the gendered world of work, they could also benefit from a deeper analysis connecting the pursuit of these occupations to class status, geography, and multiple masculinities.   

Degrees of Difference’s analysis of men’s and women’s educational credentials and power at the intersections of race and class is a true strength of the text, and raises important questions about the future of higher education. Niemi specifically predicts the rise of a “minority advantage” discourse, drawing attention to the boy crisis/female advantage argument as, first and foremost, a panic about the state of white men in America; a panic which, Niemi shows, is both misplaced and a well-placed smokescreen, obscuring the broader social processes that ensure the limits of female advantage in higher education.   


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 20, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22411, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 4:44:41 AM

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About the Author
  • Janelle Pham
    University of California, Santa Barbara
    E-mail Author
    JANELLE PHAM is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests include gender and sexuality, sexual behavior and decision-making, intersectional theory, and qualitative methods.
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