If, as Chicago Booth’s Kevin M. Murphy and Robert H. Topel suggest, a skills gap is the source of income inequality, the way to close the income gap would be to acquire more skills through higher education.
American women have gotten that message. Many men haven’t.
“In the United States in the 1970s, male college graduates outnumbered female college graduates 3-to-2; today, the ratio is reversed,” write Murphy, the late Gary S. Becker, and William H.J. Hubbard of the University of Chicago Law School, in a 2010 paper.
Since 2005, 57 percent of US undergraduates have been female. In 2014, women represented about the same percentage of graduate-school students.“Women have graduated at a much higher rate than men, accounting for almost all of the growth in the college attainment rate observed in the United States since 1980,” researchers from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland report.
“There are more women going to college than there are men, and the women are doing better when they get there,” Topel says.
Why have women outpaced men? There’s little cognitive difference between the sexes, and males do better on standardized tests. But Murphy, Becker, and Hubbard argue that women tend to have better “non-cognitive skills” than men do. Those personal skills and character traits such as persistence, self-control, and conscientiousness may help women excel academically and stay in school until they graduate.
The academic achievement gap actually starts before college: 25 percent more females than males took high-school advanced-placement tests in 2010, the Cleveland Fed economists find.
“There is a substantial gap between the measured high school performance of males and females,” Topel and Murphy write in a 2014 study, noting that female graduating high school seniors have, as a group, higher grade point averages than their male counterparts. “This high school gender gap in academic performance persists in the population that continues on to college.”
The performance gap is as large in traditionally “male” majors such as engineering and mathematics as it is in majors with a heavier representation of female students, such as the social sciences and the humanities, they find.
So far, though, that performance gap hasn’t translated into heavier female representation in some of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines in US graduate schools. In 2009, three out of four graduate students in psychology and the life sciences were female, and women were the majority in biological sciences as well, according to the National Science Foundation. But they comprised only 22 percent of engineering and 26 percent of computer-science graduate students.
For some time, nearly half of law and medical students have been female, while their representation in top business schools appears to top out around 40 percent. In 2013, women comprised 35 percent of the student body at Chicago Booth.
Winning the human-capital race has helped women gain ground on men in earnings as well. In 2013, women on average earned 78 cents for every dollar men earned, up from 60 cents in 1960.
Closing that gap entirely has proven difficult. But as skills become ever more vital to earnings, women’s singular focus on education looks on track to continue to pay off.
Dionissi Aliprantis, Timothy Dunn, and Kyle Fee, “The Growing Difference in College Attainment between Women and Men,” Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland website, October 18, 2011.
Gary S. Becker, William H.J. Hubbard, and Kevin M. Murphy, “Explaining the Worldwide Boom in Higher Education of Women,” MFI working paper series, September 2010.
Kevin M. Murphy and Robert H. Topel, “Human Capital Investment, Inequality, and Growth,” Working paper, February 2014.