Women's decline and rise in higher education and professional occupation in the 20th century

This is the 4th entry in a series of posts on sex and gender. The theory that men and women are essentially identical except for genitalia (what I have called Theory X) implies disparities between men and women are mostly caused by sexism and unfair discrimination. Pressures from government, the feminist movement, or a general increase in enlightenment are often assumed to assuage such disparate results in occupation and income between men and women. The first test of theory (X) put in slightly clearer terms from the first post is:

If gender disparities diminish when feminism and anti-discrimination laws increase then theory (X) seems to be valid. If gender disparities change despite anti-discrimination laws and feminist movements then theory (X) does not seem to have explanatory power.

The book Economic Facts and Fallacies by Thomas Sowell provides empirical evidence against theory X. Sowell examines data from higher education and professional occupations. Sowell writes, "the proportion of women in the professions and other high-level positions was greater during the first decades of the twentieth century than in the middle of the twentieth century” and all of this was before either anti-discrimination laws or the rise of the feminist movement." Sowell shows that as anti-discrimination laws and feminist movements increased, the number of women in higher education and professional occupations decreased. He cited the following data for evidence:

  • The proportion of women among the people listed in Who's Who in America in 1902 was more than double the proportion in 1958.
  • In 1921 and again in 1932, the proportion of women among people receiving doctoral degrees was about 17 percent but this was down to 10 percent by the late 1950s and early 1960s.
  • In the biological sciences, women received about one-fifth to one-fourth of the doctorates in the 1930s but only one-eighth by the late 1950s.
  • In economics, women's share of doctorates declined from 10 percent to 2 percent over the same period.
  • There were similar declines in women's shares of the doctoral degrees awarded in the humanities, chemistry, and law. A 1961 study of women's share of college faculty positions found that to be lower than it was in 1930.

Based on this data it seems that declines in higher education and professional occupations for women happened during a time that is often thought to have been more favorable towards women in terms of a lessening of discrimination and increase in women's rights. Therefore theory (X) appears to be discredited. If the theory was correct then we should have seen a lessening of disparities among women over the same time period.

So if discrimination is inconsistent with the data, what did cause the increase in disparity over that period? According to Sowell:

A closer scrutiny of facts suggests that what changed over these decades was not employer discrimination but women's marriage and child-bearing patterns... During the early decades of the twentieth century, when women's representation in higher level occupations and in the postgraduate education required for such occupations was higher than in the 1950s, the median age at which women first married was also higher than at mid-century. Most of the women who staffed women's colleges during this earlier era were not married at all. As the median age of marriage began to decline, the representation of women in high-level occupations and among recipients of postgraduate degrees also declined.

Thomas Sowell then covers the latter part of the 20th century when participation in higher education and professional occupations started to rise. The same connection between participation rates and marriage and child-bearing patterns was found. Here is some of the data:

  • The decline in women's median age of first marriage ended in 1956 and began to rise thereafter. The birth rate also began to decline, from 1957 on, and by 1966 was again as low as it had been back in 1933. Women's share of postgraduate degrees closely followed these reversals of trends in age of marriage and birthrate.
  • The 1970s saw women's share of doctoral degrees rise. By 1972 that share was again as high as it had been back in 1932. It was much the same story with Master's degrees, where it was 1972 before women's share of these degrees reached the level of 1930, except for the World War II years when millions of young men were away in the military. With both Master's degrees and doctorates, women's share declined precipitously after the war to levels below those of the 1930s. These were of course the years of the "baby boom," indicating again the role of child-bearing in limiting women's educational and career prospects.
  • Women's rise in higher-level occupations in the second half of the twentieth century continued to follow the rise in their age of marriage, which rose sharply and finished the century significantly higher than it was at the beginning, while the birth rate fell sharply and was much lower at the end of the century than it was at the beginning. As the age of first marriage climbed to record high levels, women rose to record high levels in higher education and higher occupations. Women's percentage of postgraduate professional degrees in general, master's degrees in business in particular, law degrees, medical degrees, and Ph.D.s all skyrocketed from the 1970s on. It was not just in higher-level occupations that women's changing marriage and child-bearing patterns were reflected in their work patterns. The gap between men's and women's participation in the labor force in general narrowed dramatically. In 1950, 94 percent of men but only 33 percent of women were in the labor force. This gap of 61 percentage points narrowed to 45 percentage points by 1970. At the end of the century, the gap was only 12 percentage points, as 86 percent of men and 74 percent of women were in the labor force. In addition to entering the labor force in general, more women also entered occupations where men were previously predominant, especially those occupations requiring a college degree. The continuity of women's employment also increased after 1970, though the gap between the continuity of men's and women's employment did not disappear and women continued to work part-time more so than men.

Sowell concludes, "These positive changes in the second half of the twentieth century, as well as the negative changes during the earlier decades of that century, all follow remarkably closely changes in women's age of marriage and child-bearing."