Could Segregated Classrooms Close Education’s Gender Gap?

The choices that men and women make about what to study in college will affect their earnings for life, and a new study of college-educated workers in Italy suggests that these choices may be influenced by how much contact male and female students had while they were in high school.

Writing in The Daily Caller, Eric Owens says that UC-Davis economics professors Massimo Anelli and Giovanni Peri tracked Italians who graduated from college between 1985 and 2005.

The researchers found that the gender ratio of high school classmates considerably and consistently affected the choices students later made about their majors.

Women students who had attended all-female high schools had a much greater tendency to major in high-paying fields like engineering, business and medicine, instead of the humanities. This trend was so strong that just attending a high school with an unusually large majority of girls was enough to create the same effect.

Conversely, attending a balanced, mixed-gender school produced traditional results:

On the other hand, female students who attended ordinary mixed-gender schools are more likely to choose stereotypical majors that will likely lead to lower short-run earnings, lower long-run earnings and limited overall career potential.

People who study traits of modern, Western economies have noticed that while women are now educated as well as men, they still earn less. While some suspect that bias against women is behind this pay gap, others point out that women simply don’t tend to major in computer science and engineering. Women are not only as educated as men, in many cases they are better educated — they outnumber men 58% to 42%, in graduate school programs.  The difference is that they aren’t studying the same subjects.

More women go into education, social work, arts and the lower levels of health care. Physician’s Assistants, who work under medical doctors but do a lot of the hands-on primary care, are more often women than men. Additionally, they major in noncompetitive subjects like literature:

In the U.S., more women choose to major in humanities fields, such as English. Very nearly two-thirds of all humanities degrees go to women. Meanwhile, more men choose to major in engineering and the hard sciences. In engineering, for example, about 80 percent of recent grads are male.

Why don’t women go into math-oriented, competitive fields more often? A 2009 Federal Reserve study summarizes the two most obvious hypotheses: abilities and preferences. Women may be naturally less good at math and science; they may also prefer to work with people, especially with women and children in social services or education. Additionally, families may help condition their children to go into the same line of work that their fathers or mothers did, which perpetuates gender stereotypes.

But the new study suggests that girls may be shaped by comparing themselves to male students. If there are no men for comparison, they may more readily consider themselves to be good at math, or interested in science.

In the United States, where mixed-gender schooling has a long history, there are few all-girls’ schools. Some have tried to introduce gender segregation into publicly funded schooling, but it has met with skepticism. Perhaps the study by Anelli and Peri will begin to suggest new ways to look at the issue.

02 4, 2013
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