Girls Have Always Been Better at School. Now It Matters More.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Spend any time looking through the data on educational attainment in the U.S., and one thing that quickly stands out is how much more likely young women are to have college degrees than young men are.

Girls Have Always Been Better at School. Now It Matters More.

Actually, as you can see from the above chart, the gap is now present well into middle age. It was back in the 1980s, about a century and a half after the first woman was awarded a bachelor’s degree in the U.S., that women began to outnumber men in the ranks of bachelor’s degree recipients.

Girls Have Always Been Better at School. Now It Matters More.

Women had caught up to men in college enrollment (including two-year colleges) by the early 1900s; men were just more likely to stick around for a bachelor’s degree. In the 1930s, high unemployment pushed some men into higher education (and pushed some women out, as teacher training spots were reserved for men who were seen as needing the jobs more); in the 1940s and 1950s, G.I. Bill scholarship money pulled men in by the millions. After that, though, women quickly began gaining ground again. Initially they still focused on traditional paths into teaching or marriage, economists Claudia Goldin, Lawrence F. Katz and Ilyana Kuziemko wrote in “The Homecoming of American College Women: The Reversal of the College Gender Gap,” a 2006 paper that seems to be the definitive account of this transition. But in the 1970s and 1980s, widened job-market prospects led more girls and women to compete directly with boys and men in school and college — and increasingly win.

Girls have always been better at school than boys. Data from Wisconsin cited by Goldin, Katz and Kuziemko shows that in 1957 the “high school rank of the median girl was 21 percentile points above the median boy.” That advantage disappeared when it came to standardized tests, though, probably because girls took fewer math and science classes than boys. As they began taking more such classes in the 1970s and 1980s, girls’ test scores caught up. By 2000, girls were in the majority in high school math and science classes, and on the whole much better prepared for college than boys.

What makes girls better at school? Mainly “the higher incidence of behavioral problems (or lower level of noncognitive skills) among boys,” according to Goldin, Katz and Kuziemko. “Boys have a much higher incidence than do girls of school disciplinary and behavior problems, and spend far fewer hours doing homework.” 

So that’s the cause of the education gender gap. Its consequences for politics, the economy and relationships are still playing out. I’m not about to begin trying to sort out all the political threads, but it seems like the higher-education gender gap may be related to growing partisan gaps by gender and education, as well as the fact that the Republican Party’s strongest base of support is now among non-college-educated white men. It has also surely played a role in an economic phenomenon that Bloomberg’s Jeanna Smialek wrote about in November: “Millennial males remain less likely to hold down a job than the generation before them, even as women their age work at higher rates.”

As for relationships, sociologist Wendy Wang of the Institute for Family Studies documented a couple of years ago that marriages in which the wife has more education than the husband  have recently become more common than the inverse. That’s an indication that societal norms are adapting to the education shift, which seems like a good thing. But Wang also noted that:

When asked about qualities in a potential spouse or partner, never-married men place more importance on choosing someone who shares their ideas about raising a family, while never-married women view having a steady job and financial security as a top priority in a potential partner. Therefore, even when women “marry down” educationally, they continue to “marry up” in income.

That’s not too hard to do because men continue to outearn women, despite having less education overall. Three likely reasons for this earnings gap (and they overlap one another to some extent) are:

  1. Sexism.
  2. Women taking on more family responsibilities than men, and thus having less time for paid work.
  3. The continued tendency of men and women to specialize in different — and differently remunerative — fields.
Girls Have Always Been Better at School. Now It Matters More.

The latest Economic Value of College Majors report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce finds that “almost all of the highest-paying majors are in engineering fields,” while the lowest-paying are in education, social work and the arts. Engineering majors are overwhelming male; education majors are overwhelmingly female.

There are signs, though, that what is valued in the workplace is shifting. A working paper released last year by economists Guido Matias Cortes, Nir Jaimovich and Henry E. Siu found that women have been making big gains relative to men in “cognitive/high-wage occupations,” and concluded that the best explanation for this was that social skills are becoming more important in such work, and that women have better social skills than men. The same advantages that propelled girls past boys in education are now growing in value in the labor market.

That’s reason to think that the earnings gender gap will keep shrinking, which is a good thing for working women, and presumably won’t be much of a negative for college-educated men. But it also implies that the education gender gap will become even more salient in American life, and possibly more disruptive (men don’t always handle reduced status super-well).

This isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon; the higher-education gender gap among young adults here is pretty small by rich-country standards. For those ages 25 to 34 in the U.S., the gap in 2018 was 7.3 percentage points (42.7 percent of women had a bachelor’s degree or higher, while 35.4 percent of men did). Eleven members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the club of the world’s affluent democracies, had 25-34 higher-education gender gaps of more than twice that in 2017:

Girls Have Always Been Better at School. Now It Matters More.

Among the OECD’s 36 members, only Japan and Mexico had gender gaps in the other direction, with Turkey just about dead even. The other OECD countries with smaller gender gaps than the U.S. were Chile, Germany, the U.K., South Korea and France. The average OECD gap was 11.2 percentage points.

Most of the countries near the top of the education gender gap list score well on PwC’s Women at Work Index, the latest edition of which is out this week and rates Iceland and Sweden first and second for their relatively small gender wage gaps and high share of women on corporate boards. But even these countries still have double-digit-percentage wage gaps, despite having double-digit educational gaps in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, outside the world’s rich countries, men and boys still have the greater educational opportunities. But the disparities have been shrinking, with the World Economic Forum estimating a worldwide gender gap in educational attainment of just 4.4 percent in 2018. Girls the world over are heading to school, and increasingly to college. That’s great. But I can’t help but wonder and worry about the boys who aren’t.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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