Inequality, Education, and the Gender-Gap Reversal

Project Date:
Nov 2009
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

In 2004, women in the United States earned more than half the academic degrees conferred in every category, whether associate, bachelor, master, doctoral, or professional. More than 58 percent of college attendees in 2009 are female. What social changes explain this growing gender gap in educational attainment? Has the higher education and income of the baby boomers made it easier for their daughters to go to school or has the increase of women in the labor force led young women to invest more heavily in their education?

Economist Raquel Fernández of New York University would like to estimate how such specific factors as gradual intergenerational change, the change in the ratio of college to high-school earnings over time, marriage patterns, and labor force participation of women affect future household sorting and intergenerational mobility. With an award from Russell Sage, Fernández will study marital patterns of women between 1970 and 2005 and develop a simple quantitative model of education, work, and marriage to assess the importance of different economic mechanisms and how they may impact future inequality. 

Specifically, Fernández will explore three, central hypotheses. The first hypothesis is that the rising skill premium and greater probability of divorce might increase the competition among women to marry highly skilled men and lead to a higher percentage of women becoming more educated. Another hypothesis is that women may experience a higher return from a college education than men. Some research suggests that while overall wages for women are lower at every educational level, the incremental return to each additional year of education is higher. The third hypothesis is that educating men is loaded with hidden costs—later maturation and/or a higher instance of behavioral problems may lead to the “economically easy” increase in educating women.


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