How the College Gender Gap Might Change the Economy
Women have also edged ahead in prestigious programs like medicine, law, and masters and doctoral degrees. While men still hold the lead in business schools, women are gaining ground. And so the usual hothouses that grow captains of industry and political leaders are now dominated by women — though men are still a majority of students in some of the highest paying fields like business, computer science and engineering.
To date, women have not seen the full rewards of their rising education levels, as their pay continues to lag behind that of men. Partly, this is because other factors, including discrimination, remain at play. Partly, it reflects choices that women have made in response to their greater family burdens. And partly, this is an unfinished revolution. While young women are earning more degrees than young men, across the whole labor force — which includes older cohorts — educational attainment is roughly equal. The structure of high-paying jobs will slowly adapt to better fit the needs of women as they become a more dominant share of the educated work force.
A key to forecasting what all of this means for the future is to ask who these highly educated women will marry, if they marry at all, and what function marriage will play in their lives. It’s a question that also matters for the economy, because work and family life are closely intertwined.
So why is that question so important? History provides some useful context. During the “I Love Lucy” era, marriage was often a bargain in which a husband provided his wife with a steady income; in exchange, she oversaw the domestic sphere, providing meals, child care and a clean house.
That division of labor reflected prevailing social norms, the limited economic opportunities available to women, and the realities of childbirth and nursing. But it was also partly an economic response, and just as workers at a company tend to specialize in different tasks, so too husband and wife invested heavily in their respective occupations as “earner” and “homemaker.”
Economic forces shape not only the roles we take within relationships, but our choice of partners. A version of your grandmother’s adage that “opposites attract” reflected the reality that in this earlier time of traditional marriage, men and women specialized in different spheres, and played different roles requiring different skills. College-educated women had the wrong qualifications for this sort of marriage market, and so often remained unmarried, even as college-educated men had high marriage rates.