Sociology Professor Studies the Rise of Women in American Education

October 08, 2013

As someone who studies inequality, Thomas DiPrete has no end of material to work with in modern-day America.

DiPrete’s work encompasses social inequality and mobility, education, and gender. In his most recent book, "The Rise of Women: The Female Advantage in Education and What it Means for American Schooling," written with Ohio State University sociologist Claudia Buchmann, he tackles the question of how and why women have overtaken men in college completion.

“The landscape is a bit complicated, but the old reality of girls being behind boys when it comes to educational attainment no longer exists,” said DiPrete, Columbia’s Giddings Professor of Sociology.

Girls overtook boys in rates of college attendance and completion because of a multitude of factors, including rising labor market opportunity for women, rising educational aspirations for girls, a catch-up in math and science college prep courses in high school and higher average performance by girls in their courses.

“Young men don’t prepare as well in middle and elementary and high school as do the girls,” he said. “As a consequence, boys are less prepared than the girls are to get through college.”

The shortfall in male performance has multiple causes, but a lower average level of engagement with school is a major component. Boys need to take a lesson from sports, he said, an area where they are more inclined to practice and prepare.

“Boys know that you can’t aspire to be on the varsity basketball team in high school if you don’t commit to developing your basketball skills in middle school,” he said. “They don’t understand the extent to which academics is like basketball.”

The female advantage in college completion rates hasn’t, however, erased the gender gap in most science and engineering fields. “There were hardly any female engineers in the early 1980s, and now it’s about one in seven,” DiPrete said. “There’s been some progress, but certainly not enough.”

As co-director of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Wealth and Inequality, DiPrete’s research interests touch on some of the most hotly debated topics in American society.

For example, in 2007, he published an article titled, “Is This a Great Country? Upward Mobility and the Chance for Riches in Contemporary America,” which showed that Americans typically overestimate their chances of ever being rich even by the modest definition of “rich” used by the majority of Americans.

DiPrete combines a strong science background with a deep interest in social issues. He earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities and science at MIT and a master’s degree in statistics along the way to his Ph.D. in sociology here at Columbia. He taught at the University of Chicago and Duke University before joining the Columbia faculty in 2004.

One of his current research projects examines executive compensation, which continues to rise both in absolute terms and in proportion to the pay of the average worker. He is looking at data that he and a Columbia graduate student have collected about the peer groups companies use as benchmarks when they set compensation for their top executives, data that are public because of a 2006 regulation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“Large companies virtually all say they decide how much to pay their CEOs by using the pay of peer company CEOs as a benchmark,” he said.

That assertion let him to examine the data to see specifically which companies they were comparing themselves to. Were they roughly the same size and in the same industry, or market niche? Or were they what he calls “aspirational peers,” that is, companies that are larger and whose CEOSs are particularly well paid?

Di Prete found a systematic upward bias in the “peer” groups, and he is now studying whether public revelation of this information might change the benchmarking process.

He is also beginning an interdisciplinary study with professors in the Department of Computer Science, the Mailman School of Public Health and the School of Social Work to understand the spatial dynamics of poverty in New York City.

“We want to collect data on the movements of people in disadvantaged neighborhoods, to better understand how where they live and their ability to access resources outside their neighborhoods affects the quality of their lives,” he said.

The plan is to follow the spatial movements of a sample of New York City residents over several weeks to determine the connection between their spatial environment and their socioeconomic and health outcomes.

“We’re trying to understand the extent to which they are disadvantaged, partly due to where they live,” he said. “There’s a lot of interest in this topic.”