Thursday, 6 July 2017

Men, women, eggs and inequality

"Last year less than 105,000 male 18-year-olds started university, compared with almost 135,000 females, UCAS figures show, with more women than men on two-thirds of courses. // The gender gap for higher education is now as large as that between rich and poor people".

That is from this article, about how well-educated women are finding it hard to meet men who are similarly well-educated and therefore resort to freezing their eggs. (More here.)

Is there a problem here? If so, what is the solution? More below.

There are a number of ways of looking at the situation. Here are the top 5.

(1) Women are aiming too high in romantic terms. They should settle for less well-educated men. As the article quotes someone saying, "Traditionally women have also wanted to ‘marry up’ to go for someone more successful, financially well off. [...] Maybe women need to be prepared to be more open to the idea of a relationship with someone not as educated.." (That's assuming that the less well-educated will commit to a relationship.)

That makes sense at some level. The idea is that it will make women happier because they are unhappy with the egg-freezing thing. But presumably women can spot that too, and would rather not be mothers at all than be wives to 'inferior' men. Who can blame them? 

So that suggests that the problem is an under-supply of educated men.

(2) Men are aiming too low in educational terms. They should go to university more. 

Again, that makes sense at some level. If men did that then they would make the well-educated women happier. Also, given that women still want to "marry-up", the men would not be ruling themselves out from marrying less well-educated women.

But what's in it for the men? Presumably they can see the romantic attractions of university just as easily as women can see the romantic attractions of less well-educated men. But overall, the package is just not so appealing. Why should men be forced to go to university when they don't want to just for women's romantic benefit? Surely education is not there to make boys into the kind of men that women like any more than it is to make girls into the kind of women that men like?

(3) Maybe the problem is that universities are discriminating either in favour of women or against men (it's a zero sum game so it's the same thing). The men are aiming high but are being put off - and both men and women are losing out as a result.

Again, that makes sense as a theory. But it would mean that there has been at least 17 years of illegal activity from institutions as respectable and law-abiding as British universities. I would hesitate to say that that is the problem. 

(4) Maybe the problem is before we get to university. That's the idea suggested by the gap being the same as that between rich and poor. Maybe boys are under-encouraged or girls over-encouraged to academic achievement by "Society". 

But how does this kind of explanation work? You can come up with any number of just-so stories, e.g. about how schools are nowadays all about sitting down and doing neat work, and so boisterous boys get bored and put off while girls flourish. But these just-so stories normally rely on traditional stereotypes including boys and men wanting to make money and reproduce. Surely the incentives to university education in both long-term financial and romantic terms are such that 16-18 year old boys would be prepared to play the game of sitting still and doing neat work for a couple of years in order to reap the rewards?

Remember also that the just-so story has to describe the change in British society between 1985 and 2000, i.e. the period when the 55/45 split went from being male/female to female/male. Do you recall the radical governments we had in those years that ripped up the patriarchal structures in society? I recall a female Prime Minister but otherwise ...

(5) Let's put aside thoughts of oppression, discrimination and anti-male structures in society. British society is a pretty free kind of place. That leads to me to the "you can't have it all" theory.

Of course, some people can (have it all, I mean): there are the top-drawer/luckiest educated men and women who can get what they want from university (i.e., going to it) and romantic fulfillment; and there are presumably some uneducated men and women who can get what they want from university (i.e., not going to it) and romantic fulfillment. But at the margins, there are large numbers of women who want to go to university and have children, and large numbers of men who do not want to go to university but do want to have children, and neither of these classes can have it all. If (as their revealed preferences show) their university preferences are stronger than their reproductive ones then they don't get children. 

On this view, there is no tragedy here, any more than it is a tragedy that you can't be both a professional boxer and a professional pianist: sometimes, you just have to choose.

This strikes me as the most likely possibility. British society as a whole (especially mainstream, native, university-going British society) is failing to reproduce itself. That is evidence that having children is simply not as an attractive an activity, relative to other activities, as it used to be. Going to university and working for money have become more pleasant experiences, while parenting (especially for the university-educated classes) has become more time-consuming and expensive. The relative changes in the attractiveness of these options are probably bigger for women than for men, which I think explains why the 'news' story is about women rather than men. People respond to incentives. (The people who run egg-freezing clinics certainly do.)

Just to flesh it out a little, here are two possible mechanisms for how this theory works in practice.

(A) The "who would want that?" theory. At about the age of 16, boys and girls are considering whether to go to university. They are well aware that their romantic options once they start university (and thereafter) will be limited: students can go out with students, school-leavers with school-leavers, and never the twain shall meet. (This is plausible: in the UK, you tend to leave home for university and socialise with other students, so going to university has an immediate impact on your romantic options.) Let's say that those in the middle of the academic range know who they are, i.e. the ones for whom going to university is not a foregone conclusion. Maybe those girls look at those boys and think, "I want to do better than these no-nothing layabouts - I will work harder and go off to university"; or maybe those boys look at those girls and think "I don't like these know-it-all goody-goodies - and they'll be the least bad ones at university - I will stay away from university". Maybe both. And maybe they're both right.  

(B) Or, there is the "incentives to marrying up" theory. Take our 16 year old boys and girls who are marginal undergraduates. The girls think "at university, I'll be bottom of the class and struggling, but that's not to say I won't meet a nice boy who's going to be doctor - he won't take against me for being bottom of the class, in fact he'll be pleased to be able to show off a bit; but if I don't go to university then I'll never meet anyone like him". The boys think "I'll be bottom of the class and struggling - and so no girl will want me; but if I don't go to university, I'll be one of the top-ranked, top-earning school leavers, and so any non-university girl would want me". They are probably both right.

The result, on either of these views, is that the bottom of the cadre of educated women is left to pair up with the bottom of the cadre of non-educated men, and that's a gap that won't be happily bridged.

One final thought. If mechanism (B) is correct then the root of the 'problem', if it is a problem, is that university - and subsequent life based on university achievement - is too narrowly meritocratic. Perhaps if boys' success in non-academic spheres of university life were to raise their romantic attractiveness, that would help matters by increasing the potential pay-off from going to university? The BBC article tells us that the deficit is worse in the UK: perhaps male interest in university is higher in America because of sport scholarships, respect for jocks etc? Why not allow one of your Finals papers to be playing football for the university? Or even, make playing gender-neutral sport a compulsory part of the course: that should even up the male/female ratio a bit.

On a more plausible note, maybe you should pause before you next laugh at a male barista, a man who runs a food van or some other hipster role that requires more tattoos than A-levels. It could be these people fathering your grandchildren or no one. They need a little bit of respect too.


  1. Another thing to consider is that male-dominated degrees are typically consistently the degrees with the highest average IQ levels, while degrees that women dominate are among the lowest. Also female-dominated vocational degrees in teaching and nursing may correlate more with non-university vocations among men. Perhaps there has been a bloat in credentialism in some traditionally female-dominated fields and/or female-dominated degree subjects are less selective. The result is a lot more marginal female students in university. The university degree is a status marker, but we all know that some degrees are considerably less academic than others.

    1. Sorry - I didn't see it was you. I recommended your blog here not long ago. Keep up the good work - and thanks for reading!

    2. I've been an appreciative follower for a while!

  2. I can see over-credentialism as being a cause of gender imbalance at undergraduate level, although if 2/3 of courses are majority-female then this is not the whole story: most new doctors and lawyers are female (roughly 60/40). Not sure how this feeds into failure to pair-up later on: nurses can still marry (say) policemen - I'm guessing that degree status disparity is not too off-putting; meanwhile nurses are not marrying doctors any more (assortative mating), which is a countervailing trend. Maybe over-credentialism puts off more men than women from decent mid-level jobs, i.e. men are more likely than women to say "I want to be an [insert job here] but not if it means wasting 3 years at university first" and as a result they miss out on the long-term opportunities that wasting 3 years at university sometimes provides. Or maybe it's not wasting 3 years after all and gives some benefits that uneducated men can't replicate with raw talent. You're right that there's more to consider.

    1. Yes, I'm not sure what to make of it. However, there seem to be tensions between certain popular narratives:

      1. Women are greatly outperforming men academically, and increasingly dominating in the university.
      2. The university degree is being rapidly devalued, as it becomes less academically rigorous and more of a socioeconomic status symbol.
      3. Women are greatly underrepresented in the subjects most associated with genius (
      4. Women are greatly underrepresented in the most lucrative degree subjects and the average female graduate earns significantly less than the average male graduate.
      5. There is a degree bubble, with relatively worthless degrees saddling sub-standard students with large debts and limited employment prospects.

      I suspect part of what we are seeing now is the result of our overvaluation of the degree qualification and the devaluing of much degree education. Rather than too few men going to university, perhaps too many women are going to university and/or too many female-dominated vocations have been given the prestige of a university degree.

    2. Just on universities, I would agree that there are too many degrees and too many students wasting too many years and incurring too much debt. The devaluation of degrees follows naturally from there being more of them.

      I suspect a lot of it is circular: people get degrees because employers ask for degrees; but employers ask for degrees because almost everyone has a degree and so asking for a degree is a good way of weeding out the worst candidates. Neither the undergraduate nor the employer actually wants the degree.

      Frankly, it would be better if undergraduate degrees were equivalent in status to Grade 8 music certificates or football refereeing qualifications: they show that you have pursued an interest to a high (but not earth-shattering) level of achievement, but no one would attach much weight to them in deciding whether you would be good at your (non-musical or non-football-refereeing) job. That would leave degrees to people who want to do degrees for their own sake.

      Then the problem is: how do you get from here to there? It’s not a burden you can expect potential undergraduates to bear: they can’t risk missing out on a degree just because someone told them, “you shouldn’t need a degree to do that”. Universities have no incentive to shrink themselves. And employers might as well continue using universities to carry out what are effectively their 3-year long first round interviews given that the time and cost is paid for by the interviewees.

      I don’t have the answer. It’s going to take a wholesale revaluation of the place of universities in society, and perhaps a student loan crisis will be necessary to trigger that. I’m pleased to see that Peter Thiel and the big accounting firms have two different (and much more constructive approaches) to devaluing degrees. But I can’t say that I’m doing my own fair share – I find myself talking to my children as if university is a matter of a ‘when’ not ‘if’.