Spring/Summer 2015

Leaning in,… sort of: Georgetown economist Mary Ann Bronson explores reasons why men and women make different post-secondary educational investments.

Women’s rise in college graduation rates in the last 40 years is spectacular by historical standards. For much of the twentieth century, rates of college enrollment for women were much lower than those for men. Starting in the 1970s, the differences in enrollment rates declined rapidly, to the extent that enrollment differentials were reversed: women now make up around 57% of graduating college students in the U.S. Around the same time, U.S. women began converging with men along another dimension of educational investment: the choice of college major. In contrast to graduation rates, however, gender convergence in choice of major virtually ceased after the early 1980s. In 1985, women were awarded nearly 80% of education degrees and about 85% of degrees in nursing and health support fields, but less than 30% of hard science and engineering fields. The same is still true today.

The question of why women graduate from college at much higher rates than men, but with very different (and far lower-paying) majors has important implications for both individual and aggregate outcomesin the labor market. In her study, “Degrees are Forever: Marriage, Educational Investment, and Lifecycle Labor Decisions of Men and Women,” GCER Fellow Mary Ann Bronson shows that two facts help explain these observed gender differences in educational choices. First, a college degree provides insurance against very low income for women, especially after divorce or household separation. Low-educated women not only draw from a substantially lower wage distribution than men, but are also more likely to have custody and financial responsibility for children. A college degree, regardless of major, allows access to higher paid jobs, providing insurance for women outside a two-earner household. Bronson estimates that the insurance value of a college degree in case of household dissolution is equivalent to about 31% of the overall return to college for women.

Secondly, Bronson shows that college majors differ substantially in the degree of ‘work-family flexibility’ they offer. Wage penalties for working part time or taking time out of the labor force are up to four times higher in science/business fields, as compared to other fields such as education, nursing, or the humanities. Because college women reduce their labor supply substantially during their prime child-bearing years – at age 35, only around 60% of college-educated women work full-time, compared to around 90% of college-educated men. Such flexibility appears to be particularly important for women. The data indicates that women tend to choose more flexible majors than men and are more likely to utilize the flexibility associated with these majors.

Based on these patterns, Bronson develops and estimates a structural model that simulates men’s and women’s lifetime choices concerning education, labor supply, marriage, and divorce. Bronson then uses the model to simulate the effects of different work-family flexibility policies on these choices. The results show that the most effective policies for increasing women’s participation in business and STEM fields are non-discriminatory part-time work policies, in which employees with children below a certain age are entitled to work part-time. Policies that provide this kind of benefit to employees with children have been passed in a number of countries, including Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. Bronson finds that such policies could increase the share of women choosing a science/business major from 34% to 45%.

On the other hand, Bronson finds that policies such as subsidized child care have relatively little effect, while extended maternity leaves (of more than one year) can in fact reduce the share of women choosing a science or business major, by significantly reducing the amount of experience women accumulate over the lifecycle. Because returns to experience are much higher in science/business fields, policies that allow women to remain in the workforce at temporarily reduced hours are much more effective at shifting women towards science and business fields than extended leave policies.