Is there an education penalty for women?

January 9, 2014

New stats out on women with graduate degrees are, quite simply, depressing.

The percentage of graduate students in economics who are women is down to 11% from a high of 16% in the 1990s, according to a new study by Wendy Stock and John Siegfried. What’s more, those who do make it to the end of a PhD program still face pitfalls. From the study (pdf):

For males, getting married within the first five years after graduation was associated with a 25 percent salary growth premium relative to other males. For females, however, getting married was associated with a 23 percent salary growth penalty relative to other females, perhaps reflecting compromises incurred in a two-career job search.

Basically, the research suggests that married women tend to compromise their careers and married men don’t, and that is reflected in their salaries. Lydia DePillis writes that this could mean that women are moving or making compromises for the sake of their husbands’ careers, or it could mean that women tend to make sacrifices related to having children more than men do. The academic system isn’t designed to accommodate life-work balance before tenure.

Take, for example, Maya Sapiurka. She’s in a science PhD program, not econ, but she writes very clearly about the compromises she and her colleagues are forced to make. Scientists in academia, she writes, have their livelihood based on securing grants to pay for research, the most prestigious of which come from the National Institutes of Health. To encourage scientists to branch out, the NIH has a tacit rule that it won’t award grants to scientists who do research at the same university where they did their graduate work. Here’s Sapiurka:

This sounds well-intentioned, but packing up after over five years of study and moving to a new city for a few years isn’t always possible. The students I’ve spoken to who have been disproportionately affected by this unspoken rule are women with families. They are scientists who finished their doctoral degrees while having children and who cannot or will not pick up their families to move to a new city for what may be only a year or two of training before moving to the next lab. All of them are working on substantially different projects in new labs. But because they’ve remained at the same university, they are cut off from the grants that would be most helpful to their careers and their futures.

For women, the academic system rubs directly against biology. The average PhD student graduates at 33 — right about the time fertility starts to drop off for women. Men can wait until they get tenure at 40 to think about having children. For women it’s much more difficult.

This isn’t a new idea. Sarah Gibbard Cook wrote a pretty thorough rundown of the problem of the “leaky academic pipeline” for women back in 2004. But Stock and Siegfried suggest that this is not just about women leaking out of the tenure track. The study also takes into account PhDs who went into industry, which Sapiurka considers the more flexible option.

This all leads me to a somewhat unsubstantiated theory: the more education you get, the more of a marriage/childbearing penalty you are likely to see. The years in which you would otherwise be building up the seniority to mitigate the career setback that inevitably accompanies having children are instead spent in school.

JDs and MBAs also have huge gender pay gaps (see Claudia Goldin’s new paper, also presented last weekend at the AEA). Both are higher education degrees that people usually get after working for a couple of years, putting most graduates in their late twenties, and many around over 30. Like academics, young female JDs and MBAs are still green — and expected to be flexible and available in their careers — when they are confronted with the impending decline of their fertility. Therefore their sacrifices count more. It seems to me to be a much bigger risk to take maternity leave, or need to leave the office at 5pm, two years into your career as opposed to eight or ten years in.

As a result, I don’t think we should only be talking about the marriage penalty. We should be talking about the education penalty, and what that says about us as a society.

Image: REUTERS/Jim Bourg


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Or maybe they have a soul and find the evil life force sucking work of a JD or MBA to be not worth it. You have to have a certain type of psychopathy to do these jobs and perhaps women just don’t have that.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The fact that Grover Norquist now calls himself an ‘economist’ pretty much tells you how low that field has sunk. Bad degree = bad career. Most econ majors I know, just use it for pre-law now. A PhD in economics itself would be silly.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Interesting article, but it doesn’t seem like anything new.

At the risk of having to duck metaphorically to avoid being hit with a blunt object, I don’t really see a problem with this. Or, rather, I’d be intensely interested in what a solution might look like. Mostly because I don’t really see a solution that is anywhere in the realm of realism.

I think there should be some type of focus on the massive (!) inroads that have been made towards reducing gender disparity in developed nations. This article focuses on Econ PhD students, in which the percentage of women has (apparently) declined. To someone who is unaware, this completely hides the fact that women are earning higher ed degrees in larger numbers than men. This fact bodes very well for women one or two generations down the line. Not everything can happen tomorrow, next year, or in a decade.

Put simply, if you’re a women who knows she wants to earn not only a BA but go beyond, she’s either going to have to do some additional planning in her early/mid 20’s, or hurry up n get it done immediately after finishing. If she is smart enough to realize that a BA is good but something more is awesome, she is probably smart enough to solve this issue as well.

Posted by Adam_S | Report as abusive

“…to mitigate the career setback that inevitably accompanies having children …”

Terrible, kids getting in the way of empowerment and self-actualization like that.

“… expected to be flexible and available in their careers …”

Yeah, just like young men starting their careers. Well, you want to be treated like men, right?

You can’t have it all, girls. Men have known this for ages, and most have dealt with it fairly well. You can too.

It ain’t the patriarchy that’s getting in the way here, it’s biology.

Posted by f00 | Report as abusive

of course, try legal notes on Yale University? (please correct my notion memory)…
actually, my recollection is ‘high average performers in classes conducted since start of education for women are posted by them than by m e n…’

or better yet, conduct a new survey…

shalom! mwaHHHHH!

Posted by Adviser_cognito | Report as abusive

Life for women in the West is full of choices, yet resentment about our biology, or towards the perceived wonderful life enjoyed by the opposite sex, continues to dominate our literature.

Posted by Safia | Report as abusive