Russell Muirhead

(WOMENSENEWS)–The tradeoff that women make between education and marriage seems to be going the way of the horse and carriage.

As recently as 1980, the more years of post-high school education a woman had, the less likely she was to marry.

Elaina Rose, an economist at the Universityof Washington, termed this tradeoff the success gap. But after examining the 1980, 1990 and2000 Census, Rose has determined that while the success gap still exists, it is narrowing fast.

In 1980, a woman with three years of graduate school was 13 percent less likely to be married than a woman with only a high-school diploma. By 2000, that gap shrank to less than 5 percent, according to Rose, who presented her findings at a conference in Boston last week.

“If we extrapolate this forward the gap won’t be here in 2010,” says Rose. “The tradeoff between education and family is just not there the way it was before. It’s disappearing.”

Different theories for the narrowing of the success gap abound.

Marriage Becoming More ‘Companionate’

Russell Muirhead, an associate professor at Harvard, points to the way marriage has, since the 19th century, been progressing toward a union of equals.

“In the traditional marriage it was thought that differences between men and women were complementary” says Muirhead, who teaches an “everyday ethics” course that considers the changing roles of work and family. “They could form a more complete whole together. In the 19th century there grew up a rival ideal of a companionate marriage of equals who were similar in interest and intellect. In the last 30 years, this rival ideal has gotten a much stronger hold on our hearts. Now I suspect more people are looking for similarity rather than complementary differences.”

Rose agrees with this theory. “It would seem easy to blame a lack of success in finding a husband on a success in one’s career,” says Rose. “In the past that was the model. We choose the kinds of marriage that give us the greatest rewards. Now I think there’s more of a reward in a marriage of equals than before.”

Gap Closes Amid Fewer Marriages Overall

Amid a narrowing of the success gap, Rose found an overall decline in the percentage of women between ages 40 and 44 who were married. In 2000, 72 percent were married, down from 81 percent in 1980.

The decline in marriage rates for women in that age bracket is roughly equivalent for more- and less-educated women. Between 1980 and 2000 marriage rates for women with a high-school education declined 5 percentage points to 91 percent. For women with college education, the rate declined by the same 5 percentage points to 88 percent.

Women with three years of graduate school, meanwhile, have bucked the declining trend. For them the marriage rate has actually increased by 3 percentage points, to 86 percent.

“There is a decline in marriage, but it’s just not associated with education the way it was before,” says Rose, who says she too had the common misperception that educated women are less likely to marry.

Media Perpetuates Success Gap’s False Grip

Rose says several media reports have helped create the impression that more successful women are less likely to marry or have children.

Cases in point include a 1986 Newsweek report saying a 40-year-old woman had a statistically higher chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married (the chance of which was less than 1 percent).

Even though the statistic was later proven inaccurate, it got stuck in many heads and still finds its way into citations.

Rose points to other examples. These including a 2002 New York Times column in which Maureen Dowd asserted that men don’t like to date successful women and the 2002 book “Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children,” in which Sylvia Ann Hewlett asserted that more successful women were less likely to have children.

“The misperception can support different things people want to get across,” says Rose. Highlighting the difficulties women may have in getting an education and having a family encourages family-friendly policies, she says.

Muirhead disagrees, saying that if the public understood that women in general were less likely to be married it might drive a stronger push for family-friendly policies.

“If it were the case that making a living didn’t just disadvantage women like Maureen Dowd, but disadvantaged women in general, then that would only strengthen the political claim for different kinds of social policy,” says Muirhead. “I think if the myth persists it’s because it comforts us in some way. It’s comforting to think that the unusually advantaged and smart are disposed to living less happy lives.”

Muirhead also argues that, to the extent that the term feminist is equated with educated women, the myth of the unhappy “liberated” woman might be popular. “For people who are opposed to feminism it might comfort them that, for all educated women know, they might not know enough to find love,” says Muirhead.

Rose says the idea of the success gap may lead some to think education erodes a woman’s desirability. “One woman told me her grandmother warned her not to get her Ph.D. because she wouldn’t be able to attract a husband,” says Rose, who quickly points out the woman ignored her grandmother, pursued her doctoral degree and is now married.

Regardless of why the misperception exists, Rose points out the reality is “young women should not feel like they have to sacrifice their educational and career aspirations to improve their chances for getting married.”

Kelly DiNardo is a freelance writer.

For more information:

Elaina Rose–
“Education and Hypergamy in Marriage Markets”: