Why Women’s Education Surpassed Men’s
Empowering women has been a concern of the international community for decades. In 2000, with the ambitious objective of ending world poverty, world leaders set eight “millennium development goals”, one of which is to promote gender equality and empower women. One of the targets is to eliminate the gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005, and in all levels of education by 2015. In 2012, the European Commission published a special report on “women in decision making positions”, suggesting legislation to achieve balanced representation of women and men on company boards. Some countries such as Norway, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands have already taken legal measures in that direction. Thus, women’s education and career success have been on the political and social agenda since decades and understanding them has become increasingly important.
Education for both genders began to rise during the 19th century. Initially females received less education, but the rise of females’ education has been steeper, leading to a reversal in gender education gaps. Thus, while females’ education has lagged behind males’ until recently, today females’ education surpasses males’ in most developed economies. Goldin, Katz and Kuziemko (2006) analyzed 17 OECD countries with consistent tertiary schooling enrollment data for 1985 and 2002. They showed that while in 1985 only four countries had a ratio of male-to-female undergraduates that was below one, by 2002, women outnumbered men in higher education enrollment in 15 out of these 17 countries. This change is not confined to developed countries. Becker, Hubbard and Murphy (2010) showed
that while in 1970 men’s college attainment was higher than women’s in almost all 120 countries in their sample, by 2010 women’s college attainment surpassed men’s in most rich countries and in about one-third of countries with per capita income below the median.
The increase in education has been accompanied by a decline in fertility in virtually all the regions of the world. Over the period 1960–1999, total fertility rate (TFR) plunged from 6 to 2.7 in Latin America, and from 6.14 to 3.14 in Asia. TFR in Western Europe and the Western offshoots, which began to decline in the 19th century and continued this trend over the period 1960–1999. In Western Europe over the same period TFR declined from 2.8 to 1.5, and in the Western offshoots from 3.84 to 1.83. Even in Africa, TFR declined moderately from 6.55 in 1960 to 5.0 in 1999 (Galor 2005).
In Hazan and Zoabi (2015) we argue that the reversal of the gender education gap and the decline in fertility are linked to parents’ preferences for sons. These preferences are affected by the importance of human capital. Our explanation emphasizes how uncertainty regarding the gender composition of the household affects the decision about family size and education level. We suggest that this uncertainty generates the gender education gap. Furthermore, the closing of the gender education gap and its reversal—a process accompanied by a decline in fertility—stems from the diminution of the importance of uncertainty as development progresses.
We assume that parents value the potential economic success of their offspring measured by their potential future income. If the labor market discriminates against women by rewarding men more than women regardless of education, parents value sons more than daughters. However, since the gender of each child is known only after birth, fertility becomes a choice under uncertainty because parents do not target the number of kids only but also their gender composition. This discrimination however, implies that women are more productive in producing income via education than men. Put differently, women have relative advantages in education.
We argue that technological progress that increased the return to education increased the value of daughters’ education in the eyes of parents thus reducing the relative concern of labor discrimination for fertility and educational choices made by parents. This technological progress, is responsible for (1) the decline in fertility, (2) the increase in education for both genders and (3) closing the gender education gap and its reversal.
Imagine an environment in which the returns to human capital are relatively low. In this environment, sons earn much more than daughters do, and, therefore, parents value sons significantly more than daughters. Consequently, since the gender of a child is known only after the decision to have an additional child is taken, parents who obtain daughter(s) in their first birth(s) may have more children. Thus, uncertainty regarding children’s gender induces higher realized fertility and daughters are born in larger families.
In contrast, imagine a different environment in which the returns to human capital are relatively high, and therefore, by giving education, parents value sons and daughters (asymptotically) equally. Consequently, the uncertainty regarding the gender of a forthcoming child is irrelevant to fertility choice, and therefore, parents end up with lower fertility. Moreover, investment in daughters’ education surpasses sons’ as the relative advantage of women in generating income via education becomes quantitatively important. Thus, we argue that part of the decline in fertility and the reversal in the gender education gap are attributed to the diminishing role of uncertainty about a child’s gender as development progresses.
The literature offers a variety of other explanations for the reversal of the gender education gap. Chiappori, Iyigun and Weiss (2009) assumed that women suffer from statistical discrimination, which declines with education. This implies that women face higher returns to schooling in the labor market since education can serve as a mean to escape discrimination. As technology of home production improves, women spend less time at home and the returns to schooling in the labor market becomes the main determinant of schooling. At this stage a reversal in education may occur. Iyigun and Walsh (2007) argued that since men are in short supply in the marriage market women are induced to invest more than men in competition for the scarce males. Another explanation stems from the risks associated with divorce. Chiappori and Weiss (2007) showed that men are more likely to initiate divorce when couples face a poor quality of match, because of men’s typically higher income and custody arrangements. As a result, women may insure themselves against unwanted divorce by investing more in schooling. Becker et al. (2010) argue that since girls have both higher average levels and smaller variances of non-cognitive abilities than boys do, the supply of female college graduates is more elastic than that of males. When the demand for college graduates is sufficiently high, women surpass men in college graduation. Finally, Pitt et al. (2012) and Rendall (2010) assume men and women are endowed with brains and brawn and that men have more brawn than women. In both models, sufficiently high returns to brains induce women to invest more in education.
Becker, Gary S.,William H. J. Hubbard and Kevin M. Murphy. Explaining the worldwide boom in higher education of women, Journal of Human Capital, vol. 4(3), 203–241, 2010.Chiappori, Pierre-Andre, Murat Iyigun and Yoram Weiss. Investment in schooling and the marriage market. American Economic Review, vol. 99, 1689–1713, 2009.Chiappori, Pierre-Andre and Yoram Weiss. Divorce, remarriage and child support. Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 25, 37–74, 2007.Galor, Oded. From stagnation to growth: Unified growth theory. In P. Aghion and S. N. Durlauf (eds.), Handbook of Economic Growth, vol. 1A, pp. 171–293, 2005. Amsterdam: Elsevier.Goldin, Claudia, Lawrence Katz, and Ilyana Kuziemko. The homecoming of American college women: A reversal of the college gender gap. Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 20(4), 133–156, 2006.Moshe Hazan and Hosny Zoabi. Sons or Daughters? Endogenous Sex Preferences and the Reversal of the Gender Educational Gap. Journal of Demographic Economic, vol. 81, pp: 179-201, 2015a.Iyigun, Murat and Randall P.Walsh. Building the family nest: pre-marital investments, marriage markets and spousal allocations. Review of Economic Studies, vol. 74(2), 507–535, 2007.Pitt, Mark M., Mark R. Rosenzweig and Nazmul Hassan. Human capital investment and the gender division of labor in a brawn-based economy. American Economic Review, vol. 102(7), 3531–3560, 2012.Rendall, Michelle. Brain versus Brawn: The Realization of Women’s Comparative Advantage. The University of Zurich, mimeo, 2010.
 Discrepancies in income between men and women can be either attributed to labor discrimination or to differences in endowment between males and females such as physical strength, in which men have an absolute advantage.
 The technology of knowing the gender of the fetus was absent in today developing countries in the past and still not frequently used in many developing countries until today.
 This prediction that on average, girls come from larger families than boys in early stages of development, has received much support. Jensen (2005) showed that this is the case in India, China, Egypt, Korea, Malaysia, Morocco, Nepal, Syria, and Turkey and Angrist et al. (2010) documented this fact for Israeli families who originate from Asia or Africa.