Book review: The Rise of Women, by DiPrete and Buchmann

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

banner_pcohen rise of women AP.jpg

(Charles Dharapak/AP Images)

The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools is both ambitious and modest in its goals: Sociologists Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann provide an ambitious analysis of why and how girls are outperforming boys in high school and going on to get a disproportionate share of college degrees. However, the authors modestly remain within their subject matter and avoid the unsupported claims about women’s looming social dominance that have inflated much of the conversation about gender dynamics today.

This allows us to have a reasonable, valuable conversation about an important problem: the failure of the education system to help a majority of students to reach their academic potential. We clearly do not have a problem of over-education among women. Even among Whites alone, women as well as men are graduating college at rates lower than those in the most educationally advanced societies (which used to include the United States). Rather, we have a dysfunctional system that underperforms for men more than for women.

Rather than focusing on the full range of educational failures, DiPrete and Buchmann focus on a low-hanging fruit policy question: How can we improve college degree attainment for the approximately one-third of students who are ready to graduate college but do not, because they do not have the resources, they change their minds for some reason, or they are not adequately supported in the endeavor?

Women up

Since the 1980s, women have gotten the majority of bachelor’s degrees. That’s mostly because they also perform better in high school, getting better grades and taking more advanced courses. DiPrete and Buchmann set aside the issue of the potential cognitive advantages of girls, which may or may not be “innate.” Such differences are too small and stable to account for the rapid change and large advantage in educational attainment women now hold. The reasons we do not have more people completing college—and gaining more skills and knowledge to enrich their lives—are not genetic or biological, but rather social and economic. We can do better, for both men and women.

While women have continued their upward historical educational trajectory since World War II, men’s achievement of college degrees stagnated—coinciding historically with the growing necessity of having higher education for economic security. If you ever needed proof that majorities of people do not respond in predictably self-interested ways to economic incentives, it is the stagnation of male college graduation rates even as the returns to a college degree spiked upward.

DiPrete and Buchmann’s sensible policy suggestions draw from this key insight: The difference between men and women, and how it has changed, can best be understood by studying differencesamong men and women—within genders. That means we don’t just study what family, school, and environmental effects matter, but who is most strongly affected by such differences in the social context.

One important lesson: Schools with high overall performance have a smaller female advantage. That leads to the straightforward conclusion that we can address the gender gap partly by increasing the quality of schools across the board. Easier said than done, but no less important—or less true—for it.

Men up

It is important to connect women’s educational rise with the other trends that have upended gender relations in the U.S., and the authors do an admirable job of tying these in. In particular, the rise in women’s employment opportunities, the decline or delay in marriage, and falling fertility rates have all increased the incentives for (and ability of) women to complete college. And, of course, the rise in education has in turn fueled these other developments as well. For example, college graduate women as well as men are more likely to get (and stay) married than those who completed high school only. Maybe by getting a college degree they improve their marriage-market options—and reduce the odds that they will divorce by increasing the educational parity in their marriages.

While the title of DiPrete and Buchmann’s book is overly dramatic, the subtitle is appropriately limited: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools. Because although women are more likely to graduate college and get some advanced degrees than men are today, there is nothing in this trend that implies women will surpass men in overall earnings or economic (much less political) power in the foreseeable future.

Education, especially measured at the bachelor’s degree level, is merely one indicator in a whole suite of gender dynamics in which men overwhelmingly dominate. Further, women’s educational advantage is not so great that they will overcome the labor-market advantages that men have at all educational levels, the imbalances within families that persist today, or the tendency of women to end up in less lucrative fields of study and thus occupations.

The biggest problem for gender inequality among the college-educated remains the lack of gender integration across fields of study, which stalled in the 1980s. Men and women still largely educate themselves in different fields, with dramatic implications for their career trajectories and earnings throughout their lives. Segregation in fields of study is closely related to the issue of occupational segregation in the labor market. Both reflect a complex combination of choices and constraints made in varying social contexts—with decisions made early in life producing irreversible effects. In the latest reports, women are just 26 percent of workers in computer and math-related professional occupations and 14 percent of those in architectural and engineering professions.

And DiPrete and Buchmann’s analysis helps understand this stubborn problem. They report that high school is the key location to understand major-field segregation. Among high school boys and girls with strong interest in science and technology fields, there is no gender gap in the likelihood of completing such a major. The difference is in the rates of intention to major in those areas. Between 8th and 12th grade, girls lose interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM fields, for short) much more than boys do.

Women’s desire for people-oriented work, for work that is intrinsically interesting, and for occupations that permit work-family balance cannot fully explain their lower rates of majoring in STEM-related fields. Rather, the major source of the difference is that women do not express interest in STEM-related careers while in high school—and that is not because high school girls are not as good at math and science. Instead, the difference may be that boys believe they are better at math and science, especially math. The key policy insight in this area is that science-intensive high school environments greatly increase girls’ interests in physical science and engineering-related careers.

This is an important book, and although somewhat technical in its analysis sections it deserves a wide readership.

I have two minor complaints about The Rise of Women. The first is over its insistent focus on the four-year college degree and the economic benefits it brings. The fact that women receive more bachelor’s degrees than men but continue to earn less money confirms that a bachelor’s degree is not a first-class ticket to labor-market success. Although this helps to focus the book, it also distracts from the more universal problems we have, including an obsession with the material benefits of education.

DiPrete and Buchman conclude that we need to find ways to motivate students in middle and high school to devote more energy to their studies, by improving the quality of education as well as the quality of information students have to make the connection between what they learn in school and their future career ambitions. Too many boys don’t cognitively grasp that the difference between merely making it versus excelling through high school is measured in higher education success and potential career satisfaction. Finding ways to get this across might really help their motivation to work harder, the authors argue. But truly high-quality education takes students beyond such material calculations into the realm of the intrinsic beauty of discovery, the power of wonder, and the search for knowledge as a key to life, the universe and everything.

My second knock is that the authors seem not to notice the broad trend of slowing advances for women. For example, even though their charts show it, they don’t mention that the share of law and medical degrees earned by women slowed and then peaked in the early 2000s—and has declined since. Naturally, that is not the central concern of a study devoted to understanding women’s advantages. But in the context of the general gender stall, it’s important to realize that women’s progress across many areas is highly interrelated.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Book review: The Rise of Women, by DiPrete and Buchmann

  1. The difference is in the rates of intention to major in those areas. Between 8th and 12th grade, girls lose interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM fields, for short) much more than boys do.

    Has there been any study as to whether this is driven by hormones (which as you all know have powerful effects on the brain) during puberty?

    The key policy insight in this area is that science-intensive high school environments greatly increase girls’ interests in physical science and engineering-related careers.

    Which is pretty useless if you can’t get the children to read or write beyond the barest level. (I won’t go into the causes, but it sure isn’t from lack of spending: New Orleans spent $13,000/pupil in the 2009-10 school year.)

  2. Dave

    We clearly do not have a problem of over-education among women.

    Or do we (and not just among women)? i.e. If even the filing clerks need a B.A. does that suggest that pre-college education is bad enough that employers might be looking for stuff that people really should have learned in elementary and high schools? (It’s the same basic reason why I consider affirmative action at the university level a really stupid idea, but trying to improve education at the pre-college level a good one).

    You mention increasing returns to education in the US which seems true. Given that the US primary / secondary education system often tends not to rank too highly compared to other countries in the developed world, is there similar data available for other countries?

    For example, college graduate women as well as men are more likely to get (and stay) married than those who completed high school only. Maybe by getting a college degree they improve their marriage-market options—and reduce the odds that they will divorce by increasing the educational parity in their marriages.

    If significantly more women than men are graduating college, wouldn’t a woman going to college raise the average amount of education in an eventual marriage but averaged across society as a whole actually DECREASE the parity in education?

  3. Bill

    Why is it that when Sociologists discuss equality between the genders they only mean income equality? Is that really the only measure of equality?

    Isn’t achievement of whatever an individual chooses for a career the most important thing, rather than that they earn as much as someone else? For example, if I wanted to be an artist, and am able to make a living as an artist, I think I would be very happy and fulfilled. If someone told me I am not equal to an engineer because an engineer makes more money, I don’t think that would make sense to me. He is happy being an engineer and I am equally happy as an artist.

    It’s possible that I’m just not aware of the data. Is there evidence of unhappiness among college educated women, regret that they became psychologists or social workers, rather than engineers or physicists?

    If not, why not assume that adult, highly-educated women know what they enjoy, and know what they are doing when they choose a career?

    • In the words of Danny DeVito’s character in the David Mamet movie Heist: “Everyone needs money, that’s why they call it ‘money’!” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McQT-XH3wGA) But it’s a good question, but it’s not true that sociologists only care about income. They are the ones who pioneered the study of status and prestige, and tried to measure them, after all.

      • Bill

        Thank you for that response. But, I would like to re-state my question in a different way.

        Our educational system has problems with a high rate of school dropouts, underachievement, etc., adding up to a lower rate of college completion than other comparable nations. At the same time, we have young women in high school, outperforming boys, heading towards a college education and career. But, the careers that they are interested in are not in STEM fields. You said “Women’s desire for people-oriented work, for work that is intrinsically interesting, and for occupations that permit work-family balance cannot fully explain their lower rates of majoring in STEM-related fields. Rather, the major source of the difference is that women do not express interest in STEM-related careers while in high school…”

        So, these are not girls who are dropping out or underachieving, but who have a “desire for people-oriented work, for work that is intrinsically interesting.” But just not in a STEM field. Women make up the majority of students in nearly all undergraduate departments except for the STEM departments. They are 75% or more of veterinary medicine students, 60% in biology, nearly that in accounting. These are the occupations they apparently find “intrinsically interesting.”

        Yet, you (and other sociologists) apparently see this as a problem, something that, perhaps, should be a national goal to change. It’s a problem even though these women are likely to complete college and have good careers. (Something we want more young people to do.)

        My question is why? Is there evidence that women in non-STEM fields are less satisfied with their careers? Do they lack status or prestige? Are they unhappy? It seems to me that the only reason is that it would tend to equalize the relative aggregate incomes of men and women. I imagine that if you made that argument to a veterinarian in training, urging her to switch to physics, it would be a hard sell.

    • Ron

      Why is it that when Sociologists discuss equality between the genders they only mean income equality? Is that really the only measure of equality?

      No, but
      (a) it’s easier to quantify that “status” and “happiness”, and
      (b) this America; money, not birth or gender, is the ultimate power.

    • Dave

      Is there evidence of unhappiness among college educated women, regret that they became psychologists or social workers, rather than engineers or physicists?

      Well, there is The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness. Here’s the abstract:

      By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging — one with higher subjective well-being for men.

      • Bill

        Yes, probably caused by frustration at not being in STEM careers. “Here I am stuck in this dead-end molecular genetics job, when I could have been designing oil refineries.”

      • Ron

        dead-end molecular genetics job

        Your argument is more than tainted by the fact that “molecular genetics” falls under the Sciency category of Science, Technology. Engineering and Math.

      • Bill

        “Your argument is more than tainted by the fact that “molecular genetics” falls under the Sciency category of Science, Technology. Engineering and Math.”

        Sorry. That was just my poor attempt at humor.

        What I was trying to point out is that women are already doing quite well. They are awarded 58% of the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in Biology, for example. But these degrees pay less than those in more math-intensive areas, such as engineering.

        This article

        http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/education/edlife/where-the-women-are-biology.html

        explains that some are (I think unnecessarily) concerned with that.

  4. http://www.psmag.com/culture-society/women%E2%80%99s-brains-are-wired-for-compassion-30951/

    I can’t judge the quality of the research (done by men — evil, macho Mexican men at that!) or of the reporting, but maybe most women actually prefer people-oriented jobs like teaching, nursing and social work

  5. Leah

    Also, when women do decide to study in or pursue careers in male-dominated fields, the overwhelming sexism of the classroom/office culture can make advancement and/or mental well-being difficult. Reminds me of some of the posts on The Real Katie, especially http://therealkatie.net/blog/2011/nov/10/vagina-invalidation-argument/ and http://therealkatie.net/blog/2012/mar/21/lighten-up/

  6. Pingback: Educational endogamy (a good Princeton word), ca. 2011 | Family Inequality

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