A recent Pew study shows that females are the sole or primary provider (breadwinner) in 40% of households with children. This is an increase from about 11% in 1960. This study has garnered significant attention in the press and in social media.
Is this a trend that will continue? Will it accelerate as Millennials become parents?
Education is the basis of economic opportunity and earning power. To understand if Millennials will become a female-led generation, we need to look at how our educational system has evolved over the past couple of generations.
There has been a silent revolution going on in our educational system. Increasingly, girls have been outnumbering and often outperforming boys. Most educational progress over the past couple of decades has been concentrated on one gender.
Let’s look at some data that make this point. Despite boys having a “numbers” advantage early in the educational process, by the time the population graduates from high school, in terms of sheer numbers the majority shifts to being female. The table below shows that (despite what we were taught in high school Biology) more boys than girls are both conceived and born. But, even though there are more boys than girls enrolled in elementary grades, because boys are more likely to drop out, more girls than boys graduate high school.
The education gap between females and males is even more pronounced most when examining college graduation rates because girls are also more likely to complete a degree once they are there. 4-year college enrollments are currently 57% female. Males are also more likely to drop out of college, and the result is there are just 73 male 4-year college graduates for every 100 female college graduates. The latest projection from the US Department of Education is that in 2020 156 women will graduate college for every 100 men who do so. 61% of our college graduates will be female when the last Millennials enter their college years.
In the early 1990’s I was working mostly in educational research. At that time, (during the Xer to Millennial transition), the book Failing at Fairness came out. The premise was that girls were being treated differently by teachers and schools than boys and were “second class educational citizens.” The book claims to show how gender bias makes it impossible for girls to receive an education equal to that given to boys.
At the time we were doing a lot of market research in schools and had data sets from tens of thousands of children. Our data was coming to a completely opposite conclusion. Girls were reporting being happier and having better relationships with their teachers than boys were. Teachers were reporting to us that their struggles were in reaching boys and not girls. We accused these authors of ascribing their own experiences in the educational system to the current youth generation, when we had very concrete data suggesting their core premise was wrong. What they really did was extrapolate a Gen X trend to Gen Y.
Since that time, the prevailing wisdom has shifted – in the Gen X era the discussion centered on how schools cheat girls. Today, the discussion is about how boys are being left behind. The newfound female domination of the educational system causes concern regarding boys.
When we look at achievement data, we find that in the 70’s and into the 80’s, boys consistently scored, on average, higher than girls on reading and math. When you look today you see that, on average, girls have surpassed boys in reading scores and are pretty much at parity with boys in math. The trends show a lot more progress from females than from males, whose scores are very flat over the past 20 years.
So, is there hope for boys?
It is important to look beyond averages when analyzing any data set. A running joke in market research is that the average American is 50% male and 50% female and that doesn’t really describe anybody.
There is an interesting characteristic you see in just about any data set from young people. It can be test scores, or survey data, and on pretty much any subject you can think of. When you draw out distribution curves, you almost always see that distributions for boys tend to be flatter than distributions of girls. Boys tend to be more variable than girls. They are more likely to be in the tails of the distributions than girls are.
When researchers report education data they tend to report averages and ignore the distributions. For example, you’ve probably all seen studies that show that U.S. students perform really poorly compared with their international counterparts. That is true – but when you look at the highest achievers, the top 5%, U.S. students look much better.
Similarly, although average academic achievement is often higher for Millennial girls, boys remain well-represented among the highest achievers. Even though the proportion of college-bound students is becoming increasingly female, there is evidence that the highest achieving students remain just as likely to be male as in previous generations.
Although many colleges and universities struggle to achieve gender balance, top-tier colleges and universities do not. These top colleges remain in a seller’s market for their degrees and do not have the same issues as less competitive institutions in shaping their class in terms of gender. These top-tier schools continue to graduate significant numbers of high achieving men as well as women. In 2005, all but two Ivy League schools had more men enrolled than women.
Certainly, the data are clear that females have made great educational strides. That leads us to a central question: how will these educational gains translate to other areas? Will we someday look back on Millennials and say this was a female-led generation?
I am not so sure. The potential is there for more women to become breadwinners and for more and more cracks to appear in the glass ceiling. However, even though females are more likely to be enrolled most graduate programs there is a glaring exception: MBA enrollments are still more than 2/3rds male.
The limitations to the generation becoming female-led will not be educational, it will be more about whether women choose to take on this role. Despite tremendous gains in academic achievement and leadership, many Millennial females will not be willing to endure the stress their mothers experienced, and will instead effectively drop out of the career force, either entirely or by choosing to be underemployed. A recent study among Yale co-eds found that 60% said that when they had children, they planned to stop working entirely.
“At the height of the women’s movement and shortly thereafter, women were firm in the expectation that they could combine full-time work with child rearing. Women today are, in effect, turning realistic.” – Cynthia Russet, Yale History Professor
There are many reasons to believe that Millennial moms will be different than the generations that preceded them. Many of them know firsthand what it is like to have both parents working, and that work is becoming increasingly hectic. Their mothers tried to do it all, yet weren’t always successful in the eyes of their children.
There is a different ethos being displayed by Millennials compared to their boomer mothers. We have conducted a poll of Millennials that shows that women start to turn realistic about family and career as they approach child-bearing age. Their attitudes shift back to more traditional views of the family. What seems new is that while many of their mothers expected to have hard-charging careers and then scaled back their professional plans only after having children, many women of this generation expect their careers to take second place to child rearing.
Millennial women may not agonize over work/family decisions as their mothers have. The tug towards family that Millennial females are feeling may negate the gains made by women in the educational system.
Will the trend towards more female breadwinners continue? Let us know what you think.