Via Matt Yglesias, Kay Steiger has a great chart from the Chronicle of Higher Education illustrating that women received more than half of all US doctoral degrees in 2009:
Of course, increasing educational attainment by women is a very positive thing. However, it is a major social shift, and one that could have a large impact on cultural norms in our society.
Workers’ incomes are strongly related to their educational attainment. While recipients of professional degrees — most notably MDs and JDs — typically out-earn recipients of doctoral degrees, most PhDs earn a relatively high salary:
This bodes well for the future earnings of women earning doctoral degrees. What’s especially interesting about the increasing level of female educational attainment is that it has the potential to erase the future earnings gap between men and women at high income levels. Today women still make less than men, regardless of educational attainment. For example, in 2000 a female PhD could expect to earn less than a male with a Master’s degree:
Though this income gap is shrinking, it still exists. But if women continue to receive a larger and larger share of advanced degrees it’s likely that women’s higher average educational attainment will cancel out the gender income disparity at high income levels in the later careers of today’s college students. This is very interesting. There’s a strong likelihood that in a large portion of my generation’s heterosexual marriages women will out earn their husbands, at least at the high end of the income scale.
I’m especially curious what effect this income dynamic will have on dating norms. Most conventional American dating practices are tailored for a society where the typical woman has a much lower income than the average man. Despite its inherent patriarchy these practices arose for a practical reason: most contemporary American social norms developed in the immediate postwar era, when women did have a low income compared to most men. Many common heterosexual dating norms still reflect this: in most first-date situations men are expected to pay for dinner, a practice based on the expectation that the women have less income available to spend. This practice is also a signaling device: in the large majority of 20th century American marriages men out earned their wives, and the expectation that men pay for dinner is intended to demonstrate that the male is financially secure , making him a suitable husband. Engagement rings are an even clearer example of this logic: male sexual capital in our society is still largely dependent on income, and the tradition that a man spend three months salary on an engagement ring is a practice explicitly designed to allow for male income signaling to potential mates. Engagement rings also function as a commitment device — on some level women demand engagement rings in an effort to increase the likelihood of a proposal leading to marriage, because if a male has to invest a significant amount of money into proposing, he’s less likely to break the contract. Of course, it’s important to note that just because patriarchal dating practices arose for functional reasons doesn’t make them right.
Dating at the extreme end of the gender income gap. "Flirtation", by Frédéric Soulacroix.
However, in a world where a large percentage of high income women-out earn their spouses these practices will be increasingly archaic. What’s the point of an expectation that a high-earning man buys a female date dinner if there’s a good chance she makes more than him? This may just be male solidarity talking, but it’s hard to argue that this practice fits any definition of fairness. Similarly the traditional requirement of engagement rings, and by extension traditions that place the burden of proposing on men, is hard to justify in relationships where the female is the higher earner. As woman educational attainment continues to increase, we can expect these practices to become less common.
However, there are reasons to doubt this prediction. First, traditions can be extremely durable despite social change. For example, dating practices for college students at my age level could be expected to parallel the norms of a equal income society. While a gender income gap exists today, it doesn’t begin to appear until mid-way through professional careers — the average college male is not expected to earn more than his female counterparts. However, despite this gender income equality in college students the expectation that the male buys dinner early in a dating relationship is still prevalent, at least at some level. It’s possible that this norm exists based on the expectation that a male’s lifetime earnings will be higher than a female’s, but this strains believability — it’s much more likely that traditions are just very durable, even when they don’t make any practical sense. Secondly, while we can expect our generation’s gender income gap to shrink across society, this convergence will be much stronger at high income levels. Because humans typically marry at similar educational levels, while we can expect many high income heterosexual females to out-earn their husbands, this trend will less prevalent for lower earning heterosexual couples. This means that social dating norms based on an equal or higher female income gender dynamic will be more prevalent in high income social groups than their lower income counterparts. However, because social norms are typically highly influenced by media representations — which disproportionately portray high income lifestyles — we could expect high income dating norms to ‘trickle down’ to the rest of the population.
This explanation also ignores the influence of biological, rather than social, determinants on dating norms. Most of human heterosexual dating practices are based around the expectation that women are more sexually selective than men (though not necessarily that they have less actual sex). The requirement that men, not women, propose is the definitive example of this bias, as is the common (and deplorable) practice of stigmatizing promiscuous females while celebrating male promiscuity. Though this can be read as fundamentally unfair, there’s a well documented biological impetus for this dynamic: because reproduction (and by extension, sexual partnerships in general) have typically much higher energy costs in female animals than males, on a poorly biological level females have a real incentive to be much more sexually selective than males. This incentive is reversed in species where males invest higher costs into reproduction than females, like some species of seahorses and birds where the males exclusively raise offspring. We can expect human dating norms (which are, again, fundamentally expressions of reproductive behavior) that are influenced by biological determinants to be much more durable than those primarily due to fundamentally transient gender income imbalances.
What do you think? Can we expect social dating norms to become more egalitarian in the future?