Last week, Federalist editor Joy Pullmann wrote that “the feminist life script has made many women miserable.” Basically, she argues that pressing women to prioritize material, workplace-defined metrics of success has made women unhappy.
The question of happiness, of course, is difficult to pin down: happiness research is an extremely young and still-unsettled field. But it’s much easier to pin down a few specific facts about how modern society is changing women’s place in the world, and their expectations of it.
Nobody Has It All
For example, a recent paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research asked to what extent women can or do “have it all,” that is, have satisfying work and family lives. Their conclusion was striking.
In both longitudinal and cross-sectional studies for recent cohorts of women, about 5-10 percent of women expect to be full-time homemakers. But more than twice as many, 15-20 percent, actually end up as homemakers. This is true even among women with advanced degrees. In other words, women are vastly less likely to end up in the workplace than society teaches them to expect when they are, say, considering college decisions.
But does this mean all those women are having more babies than they expected? Far from it! The average woman, again in both longitudinal and cross-section data from a variety of sources, expects to have either two or three children, with an average of about 2.5. Yet the average woman in the age cohorts studied only had about 1.8 to 2.2 kids.
In other words, not only has our society utterly failed in enabling women to “have it all,” we aren’t even succeeding in enabling women to have some of it! We have created a set of social norms that systematically lies to young people, and especially young women, about the future, and especially about the reality of trade-offs.
You will face costly choices in life, and they will require you to sacrifice and lose things, in the name of other things you find more valuable. Set your expectations, and plan your choices, accordingly. One of the most vital choices a young person makes for her future is whether and where to attend college.
Going to Yale Could Make You Rich, Or Lonely
There’s a long-standing economic consensus that, for high schoolers smart enough to get admitted into, say, the University of Kentucky (average SAT score of about 1000-1100), as well as, say, Yale (average SAT score of about 1400-1600), it really doesn’t matter which college they attend. Quasi-random variation in certain application patterns has allowed researchers to identify the causal effect of school selectivity on, for example, how much money students earn 10 or 20 years later. It turns out going to Yale doesn’t add one penny to how much money a Yale admit earns.
At least, that’s what economists used to think. But that research was based on a sample that basically dropped all part-time workers, and excluded almost all women for various reasons. Brand-new economic research released just last week, however, overturns this long consensus. Economists have now found, again using excellent methods widely accepted by researchers on the left and right, that, for a male student admitted at a highly selective school like Yale, it doesn’t matter where he goes. If he goes to Yale, he’ll do fine surrounded by brilliant peers. If he goes to the University of Kentucky, he’ll do fine as a big fish on campus.
But for women, attending a highly selective school has massive effects. A young woman admitted to both UK and Yale faces a resounding choice about her future life. If she chooses Yale, odds are that her annual income when she is 40 will be about 40-70 percent more. However, her odds of ever getting married are about 25 percentage points, or about one third, lower. Crucially, her odds of having a higher income rise only if she gets married! So really, there are three outcomes:
- Outcome one: our hypothetical female student goes to UK, gets a degree, has about a 75 percent chance of being married by age 40, and probably makes about $50,000 a year.
- Outcome two: our hypothetical student goes to Yale, gets a degree, is still unmarried at age 40, and still only makes about $50,000 a year. If she goes to Yale, she has about 50 percent odds of this outcome.
- Outcome three: our hypothetical student goes to Yale, gets a degree, gets married, and ends up making about $100,000 a year. There’s about 50 percent odds of this outcome.
In other words, Yale doesn’t make women better off: it makes women who win the meritocracy tournament better off, and leaves the rest no better off, but with plenty of debt and no spouse. Crucially, the study authors can’t say exactly why this is happening, but a substantial driver seems to be about spousal characteristics. Going to Yale seems to make women marry much higher-earning men than going to UK does, even for women of similar family backgrounds and SAT scores. Either Yale women find these men, get married, and end up as a wealthy power couple, or they hold out for the perfect guy… forever.
My point isn’t that the highly selective meritocracy tournament model is necessarily bad. If that’s what a woman wants, go for it! My point is that nobody tells young women this when they’re 18. Nobody lays it out for them what kind of choice they’re facing, and what the odds actually are.
What college a woman goes to, whether she buys into the merit rat-race of all the best schools and all the best friends and all the best networking options, matters for future happiness in life. For women for whom the prospect of reducing future marriage odds by a third is worth the chance to double their income, the twenty-first-century meritocratic elite model might work. But my guess is that those odds won’t look so great to a lot of women who get into highly selective schools.
Crucial Life Choices Begin Before College
Of course, these trade-offs don’t begin in college. Another recent economic paper exploited the structure of Trinidad and Tobago’s school choice system to reveal how high school matters. In Trinidad and Tobago, parents have a lot of choice over where kids go to high school. They make a preference list for their kids, and then kids are assigned to schools based on a mixture of qualifications and luck. This makes for a nice experimental situation where we can see how schools affect child outcomes.
One way schools are often ranked is by test scores. Test scores are the hallmark of the elitist, meritocratic system, of course: study up, master this base of knowledge, and you’ll proceed to the next round. Some economic studies have shown that, in American localities with school choice, parents prefer schools that have been shown not to increase test scores. This is given as proof that parents have irrational reputation biases for elite schools; perhaps even racist biases!
But the study of Trinidad and Tobago went a step further. They didn’t just look at test scores. They were able to test how attending a given high school affected a girl’s odds of teen pregnancy, a boy’s odds of being arrested, their odds of being employed by age 35, and other outcomes that may matter more to parents than test scores. Crucially, the schools that were good at reducing arrest or teen pregnancy odds were not always the schools that boosted test scores the most.
By matching these school outcomes to parental preference lists, the economists found that parents made very understandable choices. Sure, they didn’t send their kids to the schools that boosted scores the most: they sent their daughters to schools that caused lower teen pregnancies, and their sons to schools that reduced the risk of being arrested. It’s not clear how parents knew about school effects, but it may be some schools just had good reputations for discipline, student mentoring, or perhaps religious instruction.
The point is, the choices parents make in school choice environments have sometimes been criticized as revealing bad biases, but it may just be that economists have been measuring the wrong outcomes! More to the point for our present discussion, where a kid goes to high school turns out to matter a lot for his future life outcomes: and the best school for a student may not always be the “best school.” It may be a school that helps him avoid life choices he will come to regret, rather than the school that teaches him to value the test above all else.
Feminism means many things to many people, so I’m hesitant to endorse the idea that “feminism” per se teaches women a good or a bad life script. If feminism means women having the right to read, vote, work, own property, and generally make their own choices free of coercion by others, that seems pretty great to me!
But where I think conservatives generally have a solid critique of the prevailing social order, is that the career-obsessed, elitist-meritocratic version of feminism is selling women snake oil. It promises them everything, and they end up with neither the wealth nor the happiness they expected. It tells them they will succeed if they go to the best schools and do the best work, without telling them it’s really just a winner-take-all tournament.
These aren’t necessarily terrible things if women choose them knowing what they’re getting into. But could these disappointed promises may lead to women being unhappy with their life conditions, feeling cheated by society, perhaps feeling attacked or oppressed by, say, elite white males?
The legitimate disappointment of many high-achieving women that things they were told to expect by their families, friends, teachers, pastors, and government leaders haven’t happened yet is a pretty good candidate for explaining some of the current division of the sexes in politics. For now, however, I can only speculate: we don’t have an economic paper on the topic yet.