At the most recent count, 23 percent of women obtained bachelor's degrees by the age of 23 years, compared to just 14 percent of men. This is an astounding reversal of masculine advantages in education and careers half a century ago. It implies that America of the future will be controlled by career women.
As so often with sweeping historical changes of this sort, the patterns themselves are far clearer than their causes. What is more, the seemingly obvious explanations may well be wrong.
According to Jay Meisenheimer, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics that released the degree data, women are benefiting from a transition away from the manufacturing-based economy of history to the service economy of today.
This explanation emphasizes improved career opportunities for women. It assumes that women are more desirable in service-related careers, a view that some women find offensive as it appears to confirm a negative stereotype.
The view that a service economy creates more opportunities for women than men is questionable. Indeed, it is fairly easy to think of many service occupations that remain male dominated, such as college professors, scientists, lawyers, software engineers, surgeons, police officers, fire fighters, mechanics, and truck drivers. Moreover, many of the service occupations monopolized by women such as working in call centers, elementary teaching, daycare, retail cashiers, and cleaning services are poorly paid and sub optimal career choices.
Having career opportunities is certainly important. Indeed, when women of the 1920s graduated with degrees, as many then began to do, their respectable career options boiled down to a choice between teaching, nursing, and secretarial work. World War II changed all that as women took jobs in factories and workshops to support the war effort.
After the War ended, women traded in their welding gloves for oven gloves and traded careers for families. According to Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord, in Too Many Women (1), the key reason that women turned their back on career opportunities is that they were in greater demand as wives. The 1950s saw a remarkable baby boom and a surge in stay-at-home mothers (2).
This pattern was reversed again in the late 1960s as baby boom women competed for mates in the much smaller cohort of men born a few years earlier.
Given their difficulty in marrying, women enrolled in colleges in ever increasing numbers as they sought to establish themselves in well-paid occupations and careers.
This trend continued for half a century, so that women's educational attainment now far outstrips that of men.
The really interesting part of this story is not career opportunity, but marriage prospects. During the 1950s, women had career opportunities but tossed them aside in favor of marriage and children. This was not always a happy choice, as students of Sylvia Plath know.
So why are marriage and children less attractive in 2011? Perhaps they are not. I believe that women's careers are largely a strategy for investing in children and will present my evidence in a future post. This is not to deny that careers are an avenue to fulfillment and self actualization, or that women, like men, are motivated by the desire for a more expensive lifestyle.
In the past, when working class earnings were higher than they are today, and standards of living were lower, women did not need careers to raise children in comfort. One salary, the husband's, was enough. Today, a single salary is not nearly enough.
1. Guttentag, M., & Secord, P. F. (1983). Too many women: The sex ratio question. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
2. Goldin, C. (1995). Career and family: College women look to the past. National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper # 5188.