What the chart shows is that if a man gets a lower grade (a B instead of an A) in Econ 101 his chance of majoring in econ is basically unaffected. But for women, there is a very strong and obvious correlation between their grade in Econ 101 and their willingness to major in economics. Just going from an A to an A- (still an A!) drops the likelihood of majoring in econ by about 7 points, from 42% to 35%.
This is a really important finding because it could answer the question of why so few women graduate in STEM courses, despite the fact that more women start them than men. STEM courses are much harsher than humanities, and so if you’re highly responsive to grades, you’re going to abandon STEM to get a degree in something less intimidating. But STEM courses also pay more, so women are sacrificing earnings to avoid lower grades. This could have important relevance for the gender gap, because it is pretty strong evidence that it’s not just preferences that are leading women to lower-paying jobs. As Rampell writes: “If women were changing their majors because they discovered new intellectual appetites, you’d expect to see greater flows into STEM fields, too.”
For me the big question is why women react more to grades than men do. Rampell has ideas (maybe men are overconfident? maybe they just care more about future salary than about grades?) but no solid answers. My initial reaction was to think that women might be more concerned with achievement overall, but my wife pointed out that men may be perfectionists too, but in other areas. Like sports and video games. That really made me think. After all, one major reason I never did sports much in high school was that I knew I didn’t have any amazing athletic ability, so why bother? And to this day I don’t like playing StarCraft 2 online because I know I won’t have the time to get really good at it. On the other hand, I do play a lot of Call of Duty, and I’m only mediocre at that game.
So I’m curious: what do you think makes women more sensitive to grades? And what impact do you think it is having on things like the gender gap and the lack of women in STEM careers?
For what it’s worth, one of the main reasons I write about this issue is because lots of other folks (some of whom could certainly do better than me) won’t touch it. I respect that. It’s sort of like running for political office: you have to question them motives of anyone who voluntarily does it, but you also have to wish that more normal human beings would. I think these hot-button issues are really important, and I hope that I can make a case for a basically socially conservative position that will enhance the discussion.
With that goal in mind, I’m planning on one more post on this topic. This one took 3 from-scratch attempts, though, were most of my blog posts are done in one. So it will probably take another 2-4 weeks before I come out with the next one.
Brenda Cronin had an op ed in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday arguing that if you want to decrease the gap between what men and women make, then you need to make work more flexible. This puts me in a bit of a philosophical bind because:
I’m decidedly not committed to the idea that equal pay for gender is an intrinsically valuable goal. If men and women are paid on equal bases, but men gravitate towards more remunerative fields, why should I care? When inequality is the result of choice, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
On the other hand, I am committed to the idea of more flexible work culture. For knowledge workers, the antiquated mores of industrialized work places just don’t make sense.
In any case, I found the research pretty illuminating. For men and women who graduate with an MBA there is initially no pay gap, but it starts to appear after 5 years and is pretty entrenched at 15. What drives the gap?
Three factors explain 84% of the gap. Training prior to MBA receipt, (e.g., finance courses, GPA) accounts for 24%. Career interruptions and job experience account for 30%, and differences in weekly hours are the remaining 30%. Importantly, about two-thirds of the total penalty from job interruptions is due to taking any time out.
So about a quarter of the gap isn’t going to go away because it’s based on gender-neutral criteria (what classes you take and how well you did). Another 60% of the gap is simply based on time worked. If you work more, you will get paid more. This isn’t rocket science. I think it’s pretty stupid, however, because it leads to a culture of conspicuous chair-time instead of actual results. I’d love for companies to modernize work expectations because it’s the smart thing to do (and also because–as a man–I like having time with my family, too). And if that results in more gender equality: so much the better.