Gender, Education, and the Gender Gap: Blame It On the Kids?

A recent study shows that the decision to have children, and especially to have them early, is a factor that contributes to women's educational attainment. 

Talk about gender equality—or a lack thereof—in education, in the workplace, in higher levels of whatever occupation you choose to discuss (fewer female managers, fewer female CEOs, fewer female board members, and the list goes on) is certainly not new. Over and over, studies, analyses, and anecdotal evidence point to a persistent gap between men and women in a number of areas, including higher education, earnings, and movement up the corporate level. Most people tend to agree that, despite innumerable improvements over the years, a gender gap persists. What there is less agreement on is why that should be the case.

There are differing approaches to addressing the gender gap

This week’s New Yorker offers the perspective of Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg: women should, among other things, be more assertive, in everything from salary negotiations, to household negotiations with their partner, to maintaining a real work presence even once they start thinking of having or have children. A landmine of a feature for the New York Times offers a controversial viewpoint from medicine, an area that tends to get less prominent exposure that business and media: work more, even with kids, and dedicate yourself completely to the job.

Many people blame women’s added home responsibilities for their lack of traditional ambition: they don’t do as well—again as judged by traditional markers such as position on the corporate ladder and earnings—because they have other priorities. Where men push ahead, women want more hours with their families; and this choice hurts them professionally. Some have even implicated genes in female (under)achievement – and even though I say “even,” I sigh and acknowledge that this camp is larger than I would like.

However, it is rare for the phenomenon to be studied in a scientific, systematic way, beyond observation and just-so stories. A recent study, led by Joel Cohen of The Rockefeller University and Columbia, attempts to do just that, focusing on one highly specific area and one highly specific population: higher education among a 1964 birth cohort of Norwegian women.

The relationship between having children and educational attainment may not be the one you expect

The team considered the common correlation between higher education and number of children (the higher a woman’s education, the fewer children she has) to see what was going on beneath the numbers. What they found will likely come as a shock to some and as common sense to others, depending on which side of the spectrum you fall. It’s not that better educated women choose to have fewer children; it’s that having more children impedes the attainment of higher education.

According to their data and multiple theoretical models and statistical tests, women who had children—and especially women who had children relatively early in their lives—were more likely to leave a higher degree program, and less likely to enter one in the first place. The opposite causal effect was not nearly as strong.

Now, the study says nothing about gender inequality per se. And, it is limited to a subset of the world that may not be representative of other societies. However, I would argue that it’s a step in the direction of figuring out one of the undoubtedly many complex factors that affect persistent gender disparities across societies.

The implications of childbearing for the gender gap

It does show that the decision to have children, and especially to have them early, is a factor that contributes to educational attainment. What it can’t tell us is whether those women who chose to have children at an earlier point in their lives were a priori planning to have a different set of life priorities, or if having children impeded their earlier desires for higher education (though the observation that women were more likely to drop out of higher degree programs does suggest that the actual fact of having children might change decisions and priorities). After all, it would be impossible to randomly assign women to conditions where they had to either have or not have a child, at various experimentally determined ages, to see how the conditions differed with respect to education. Nor does the study tell us why women who had more children and had children earlier were less likely to complete higher education. Was it because they simply didn’t want to? Felt like they couldn’t? Had different values? We don’t know.

What it can tell us is that, even in a society such as Norway’s, where the social policies are much more generous than they are elsewhere, providing support for women with children to continue with their education and making it easier for them to return to work, and women have attained high office relatively early as such things go—Gro Harlem Brundtland was elected Prime Minister more than twenty years ago, in 1990—the timing and number of children both play into an important decision that will affect a number of subsequent life outcomes. For, not only has educational level been tied to earning power and professional advancement over the lifetime, but the decision to pursue further education itself might be a decent proxy for future decisions to take on greater work challenges, greater responsibility, or greater time commitments.

What does that mean in actionable terms?

Now, I’m certainly not arguing that, to remedy gender imbalances, women should have fewer children or have them later in life. Absolutely not. That would be unfair, impractical, and frankly, the opposite of what gender equality should be about (in that both sexes should be able to make those choices that they want, when they want to make them). Instead, I point to this study as an important illustration of a trend that does exist in society – and one that is often misrepresented as the opposite of what it now appears to be (i.e., women who are better educated choose to have fewer children; in fact, the opposite of the causal logic illustrated here).

Does it matter which comes first, the education or the children? Absolutely. And knowledge of that timing can have a significant impact on, for instance, how women prepare for children (“I know this will impact my choice to pursue further education/employment/whatever, and I will prepare for that by doing X, Y, and Z”) and how the institutions that would like to see greater gender equality react to and treat women with children (More aggressive recruiting? More aggressive and assertive retention? Programs that make it easier to both have children and participate in the institution, whatever it happens to be, and that publicize this fact vocally?).

Gender gaps continue to exist and to play an important role in everyday life. We aren’t quite sure why, we aren’t quite sure how to fix it, we aren’t quite sure how to strike a balance – or what exactly the balance is that we are trying to strike. But every little piece of the puzzle helps, and here, we have such a piece. However tiny it may seem, it is still worth our attention and can still impact both individual action and wider government and institutional policy.

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