Degrees of Success: Studying the Choices of Highly Educated Women

Illustration by Jean Francois Martin
Radcliffe Quarterly
July 1, 2006
By Deborah Blagg

The late 1970s marked the beginning of a sharp increase in the number of women with advanced academic degrees and ambitious career objectives. More recently, women's professional progress has been the cause of considerable public debate, particularly with regard to the career and family choices highly educated women are making, and whether or not they are "opting out" of demanding careers to care for their families.

Two Radcliffe Institute fellows—the distinguished Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz—have been analyzing data on graduates of the nation's top colleges and professional schools. Their research goes beyond the speculative headlines of the day to pursue a fact-based, historically grounded understanding of women's ascendance in the world of higher education and their subsequent experiences in the professional world. This research was funded in part by the Mellon Foundation and by the Office of President of Harvard University. Goldin led an advanced seminar at the Radcliffe Institute in the spring of 2004, in which she began her investigation in this area.

During the past year, Goldin, the Katherine Hampson Bessell Fellow at Radcliffe and the Henry Lee Professor of Economics, and Katz, the Elisabeth Allison Professor of Economics, together with Harvard historian Julie Reuben RI '06, Boston University economist Claudia Olivetti RI '06, and University of Virginia economist Sarah Turner, participated in a research "cluster" at Radcliffe that looked at thc experience of women in higher education. The following interview with Goldin and Katz took place in early spring, in advance of two workshops planned by the cluster: "Feminism and Higher Education" and "Women and Professional Occupations."

Your research brings to light hundreds of fascinating statistics, including the fact that today 57 percent of all undergraduate college students are women. What do you make of this?

GOLDIN: The reversal of the gender gap in college attendance is striking, given that as recently as 1960 only 35 percent of college students were women. The reasons behind the shift are a key focus of our research, but before going too far into a discussion of the past fifty years, it's instructive to keep in mind that ever since the early 1900s, women's pursuit of higher education has fluctuated due to a variety of social and economic factors.

KATZ: For example, in the 1920s, there was parity in the numbers of men and women in college, since large numbers of women were studying to become teachers. The percentage fell in the 1930s, when growth in the teaching profession slowed, and during the Depression, when career women who decided to marry routinely lost their jobs to men. Men's college attendance skyrocketed when GI education benefits kicked in after World War 11, but it wasn't until the mid-1950s that women started to recoup some ground.

You have written that even as the numbers of college women began to grow in the 1950s and early 19605, women's career goals were relatively modest. Why?

GOLDIN: In earlier work of mine, I used surveys of college graduate women in the late 1950s. Most of these college women anticipated part-time or intermittent employment—often as teachers, secretaries, or nurses—to supplement their husbands' earnings. Many 1950s women, in fact, looked at college as a good place to find a spouse. The notion of getting a "ring before spring" in your senior year really persisted throughout the early 1960s.

What happened to change that?

KATZ: In the late sixties and early seventies, girls' expectations of what they could do in the world began to expand. There were a number of reasons, but one of the most important was the birth control pill, which was just beginning to be widely used by the late 1960s among unmarried women. The pill meant that women could delay having a family, so investing in a college education that would lead to a professional career began to make more sense.

GOLDIN: The median marriage age of women college graduates rose from 22.5 in the early 1970s to 25 less than a decade later. That may not sound like a lot, but it meant that women were looking toward careers after college instead of moving right into marriage. They were beginning to form an identity that had something to do with what they were studying in college and what they planned to do as work.

Another factor is that in terms of family stability, our society was beginning the journey away from Father Knows Best toward Sex and the City. Divorce and uncertainty about financial responsibility for children became larger factors beginning in the 1960s, and women started to take seriously the possibility that they might someday need to support themselves, and maybe their children.

Could you talk about your research on the academic choices students make in high school?

KATZ: Many studies indicate that teenaged girls are more mature than boys, have fewer behavioral problems, and in general are better able to succeed academically. Boys catch up later on, but often—especially for boys who have limited economic resources or family support—problems in high school can mean the end of academic pursuits.

We have been examining large longitudinal surveys of high school graduating seniors in 1957, 1972, and 1992. In the 1950s, despite girls' better academic performance, there were one-and-a-half males per female going to college. What was happening? Again, because of social norms, college was not on the agenda for many of the best and brightest girls, who stayed away from college prep courses, particularly math and science. But that was about to change.

GOLDIN: As girls' career options and aspirations expanded, we begin to see a real shift in their academic choices. The ratio of high school math courses taken by boys to those taken by girls fell from 1.39 in 1957, to 1.24 in 1972, to 1.00 in 1992. There was a similar trend in science courses, along with large gains in aptitude scores for graduating senior girls between 1972 and 1992, especially in math and reading.

Better academic preparation for college led not only lo more women being admitted, but also to a rising percentage of high-achieving women undergraduates. By 1980, there were as many women as men undergraduates, and from the mid-1970s on, there was a sharp rise in the numbers of women who chose career-oriented undergraduate majors and extended their studies in graduate school.

What are you learning about the first women who pursued advanced degrees in significant numbers?

GOLDIN: Women in the late 1970s began a phenomenon, which is still going on, that I call "the Quiet Revolution" in women's role in the economy. In the 1960s, one in twenty law students was a woman, compared with two out of five in 1980, and an equal number of men and women in the early 2000s. We see comparable numbers among medical school students. The numbers of MBA women increased as well, although to a lesser extent.

Have you studied what these women have done since graduation?

GOLDIN: Yes. One of the most useful data sets we've looked at is a Mellon Foundation study called "College and Beyond" that collected information on twenty thousand men and women who entered one of thirty-four highly selective colleges and universities in1976. The survey group includes large numbers of JDs, MDs, MBAs, and others with advanced degrees.

The study was done in the mid to late 1990s, so it gives a sense of family, education, and work histories of these women through their late thirties. It's a little out of date now, but it provides enough informatlon to suggest that observers who say that highly educated women have opted out of their careers en masse to raise families are wrong. lt shows, for example, that 58 percent of the women in this study never left the job market for more than six months total in the fifteen years after they graduated (excepting educational leaves), even though 87 percent were married, and 69 percent had at least one child.

Are there professions that seem more favorable for combining career and family?

KATZ: We know that the share of male and female MDs who are practicing physicians is essentially equal, and the majority of them have children. That parity drops off a little with JDs, but the JD degree can lead to a variety of jobs, some of which may present higher barriers to combining family and career. Among MBAs, comparatively more women have left the labor force, and women PhDs who have remained in academia are much less likely to have children than others with advanced degrees.

One shortcoming of the Mellon survey is that, while it tells us if women have kids, it doesn't indicates how old they were when they had them. Census Bureau data indicate that the percentage of colege-educated women in the thirty-three to thirty-seven age group with children under six has risen from 45 percent in 1980 to 60 percent today. So we know couples are having children later in life, but we don't have hard data on the relationship between career tracks and the timing of childbearing.

Do you have plans to gather information that would tell a more complete story?

GOLDIN: About a year and a half ago, Harvard president Lawrence Summers asked us to look at what can be done in academia—particularly a place like Harvard—to retain women in teaching and research. Out of that request has grown a project that will look at twelve Harvard classes in cohorts ranging from the late 1960s to the early 19905. Unlike the Mellon survey, we're asking specific questions about family formation, which will give us a much more accurate picture of career and family choices.

Will the results have relevance beyond Harvard and academia?

GOLDIN: Women are now a large part of the US workforce and the country's economic strength. Universities don't want to lose their talent, and neither does corporate America. There's a huge amount of interest in what is happening as this revolution unfolds, and the experiences of Harvard graduates who are committed to mixing family life and careers will enrich our understanding of what companies, the legal and medical professions, and educational institutions need to do to realize fully the benefits of women's investment in higher education.


Deborah Blagg is a freelance writer.

Illustrations by Jean François Martin

Search Year: 
2006