Gender Differences in Educational Attainment Vary by Sexual Orientation

While women still are underrepresented in high-ranking faculty positions, college and university presidencies, and in many STEM disciplines, women now make up a significant majority of students enrolled in American higher education and earn a majority of degrees at all levels. But a new study  by Joel Mittleman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, finds that gay men actually have the highest rate of college completion among all undergraduate students.

The U.S. Department of Education added its first-ever sexual orientation question to the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009. Using this and other new data, Dr. Mittleman was able to analyze how sexuality shapes academic performance. He found that roughly 52 percent of gay men in the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree, while the overall national number for all adults in the U.S. is 36 percent. “If America’s gay men were considered on their own, they would have, by far, the highest college completion rate in the world: easily surpassing the current leader, Luxembourg, at 46.6 percent,” Dr. Mittleman noted.

The acadeic uccess of gay men continues on the graduate level, according to the study. Six percent of gay men in the U.S. have an advanced degree, which is about 50 percent higher than that of straight men. This holds true for gay men in the four largest racial/ethnic groups (white, Black, Hispanic and Asian).

Lesbian women also significantly surpass most other groups of American adults, but their degree attainment is significantly less than gay men. And for younger women, lesbians’ degree attainments trailed those of straight women. Unlike gay men, contemporary lesbian women face a number of academic disadvantages, according to Dr. Mittleman. For example, his data indicate that, compared to straight girls, lesbians are twice as likely to report dropping out of high school. These stark disadvantages, he suggests, could reflect discriminatory treatment from teachers.

“Incorporating sexuality into the study of educational stratification,” Dr. Mittleman concludes, “we find the persistent penalties for women who defy the dictates of hegemonic femininity and the tremendous possibilities for men outside the confines of hegemonic masculinity.”

The full study “Intersecting the Academic Gender Gap: The Education of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual America,” was published on the website of the American Sociological Review.  It may be accessed here.

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