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

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