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Graduate Mom...
You Can Have a Career, Marriage, and Children Too

As society changes and the roles of women get more complicated, many women are deciding to combine motherhood with a career. This seems to be an ideal situation. A woman can fulfill her own dreams of success in the world and still have the family that she wants.

But, it this really the way it works?

20 years ago, the more years of graduate school an American woman had completed, the less likely she was to be married later in life and the more likely she was to be childless. Is it true, then, that women still need to choose either higher education and a successful career or motherhood?

Elaina Rose, a University of Washington associate professor of economics, decided to look at this question scientifically. What she found is that this difference – still often bemoaned in the press – is fast disappearing. Getting a graduate degree is not the hindrance to marriage and motherhood it once was. "There used to be a marked trade-off between higher education and marriage," Rose said, "but that is no longer the case."

How did she come to this conclusion? To document the dramatic shrinkage in what Rose calls the "success gap" during the 1980s and 1990s, she analyzed millions of census records and tracked the education and marriage status of Americans in the 40-44 age group. In 1980, a woman that age who had completed three years of graduate school was 14 percentage points less likely to be married than her counterpart with only a high school diploma. By 2000, that 14-point difference had melted to 5.

Rose was initially surprised by her findings. Conventional wisdom has it that women tend to "marry up" – they marry men who are more successful – scientist have a name for this - they call it hypergamy. With increasing numbers of highly educated women flooding the "marriage market" in the 1980s and '90s, Rose expected to see fewer of them finding life partners. While she did find in the 1980 census was a strong likelihood for women to marry better-educated men. When she analyzed census records for later years, she found that tendency had evaporated over the next two decades.

Does this mean that economic theory doesn't work here? "Not at all," Rose said. "It means that the market is adjusting to accommodate the increased supply of educated women."

"The very nature of marriage is changing," she added. "It has become less about what economists refer to as 'specialization and exchange' -- the wife taking responsibility for the home while the husband brings home the bacon – and more about shared roles and commonality of backgrounds."

Another factor is that the overall decline in marriage is concentrated among the less educated – especially for men.

Because commentators such as the New York Times' Maureen Dowd have lamented the threat that career success poses to a woman's opportunity for motherhood, Rose also tracked whether highly educated women have fewer children. She found that, while there is still a significant "motherhood success gap," that gap is shrinking, too.

"The perception that women face a stark choice between career and family," Rose said, "is becoming less accurate in each successive decade."

The trend for highly educated women to marry was even mirrored in Rose's own life. "While the computer was crunching away on the data last year," she said, "I (Ph.D. and all) met the man of my dreams, and got married."

So, the good news is that the times are changing and society is beginning to reflect that change. What women have always known is being recognized by the rest of the world. Bright women who want both a career and a family can look forward to succeeding at both!


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