There has been quite a lot of talk in the Blogosphere of late about the overall gender disparity in higher education, with approximately 135 women in college for every 100 men overall. Despite the claims of the anti-Summers crowd, men still have an overwhelming majority in the G-heavy fields comprising computer science, math, all sorts of engineering, and the math-heavy sciences of Chemistry and Physics.

It might surprise some of you to discover that I am finding it quite difficult to get as worked up about this percentile disparity as I do about other areas in which men are discriminated against. For instance, I am a staunch opponent of the perverse Clintonian reinterpretation of Title IX that requires sports participation mirroring the gender ratio of the school to avoid gender discrimination claims. I find the argument “women on average earn less than men, therefore there’s systematic widespread discrimination in the workforce” to be both socially ignorant and logically flawed at best (if there is sufficient demand, I’d be happy to provide my reasoning in another post). I also am adamantly opposed to what Christina Hoff Summers called “The War Against Boys” — the very real discrimination against males in pre-college education. While this discrimination may discourage men from going to college in the first place, there is no way that it can explain the entire sex disparity in higher education. In fact, I would be quite surprised if this early discrimination were more than 25% of the cause of the disparity.

When presented with a numerical or percentage disparity, I generally have two sets of thoughts:
(1) Conditional probability and Bayes’ Theorem — Mere disparities don’t tell us anything. What is the relevant group and what is the relevant population? Figure out if there is still a disparity after comparing.
(2) People respond to incentives — What are the incentives elsewhere that might fully explain or sharply mitigate the perceived disparity?

(1) is particularly useful for discussions of crime and punishment, terrorism, and search and seizure. However, before applying (1) here, we need to look at (2).

In this case, its blindingly obvious to that there is a much greater incentive for women to go to college than for men. For women, college is almost always a necessary (but not sufficient!) condition for a job providing reasonable compensation.
Without a college education, what decent jobs can women typically get? Not too much, and very little of it is salaried as opposed to wages or wages and tips.

  • Some very low-end secretarial/receptionist work is probably available, though not in large supply.
  • Stenographers, possibly — I’m not sure if they have an educational program, and even if they don’t, they’re also in short supply these days.
  • Jobs in retail, or if they’re lucky, retail management.
  • Food service jobs, including bartending and Starbucks.
  • postal work
  • delivery truck driving (local)
  • A very few women choose to enlist in the armed forces, and even with the social stigma attached to this by many sectors of society, this is probably the best option women have in both the short and long term. At any rate, this option is certainly is not a bad one and looking at the decision rationally, it’s probably the best choice for a woman who chooses not to go to college.

Let’s contrast this with the options typically available for men (at least much more than for women, both by choice and by the demands of the jobs). Whereas women are begging for employment scraps, men have a job buffet which if not exactly filet mignon, is certainly both varied and nourishing. Most, but by no means all, of these additional opportunities for men exist because the average man has a significant (~1+ SD) strength advantage over the average woman.

  • Many more men than women choose to enlist in the armed forces out of high school. While this is the best option for women, it’s far from clear that this is the best for men.
  • Police forces and firefighting, at least on the entry level.
  • “High end” physical labor — Unionized longshoremen START in the mid/high 5-figures.
  • Construction work
  • Security services
  • “craft work” such as carpentry, glazing, welding, and bricklaying.
  • “physical service work” such as extermination, plumbing, electricians
  • postal work
  • delivery truck driving (local)
  • long-haul trucking.
  • mechanic work, particularly auto-mechanic work

Those are the options. 4 years of college is a non-trivial financial cost, even ignoring the opportunity cost of working over that time. After 4 years of college, let’s say that the “low end” of female graduates typically go into jobs such as social work and teaching, or jobs that pay around that level. (Note that this does not say that all teachers are low end — remember the lessons of conditional probability).

As I said, incentives matter. Why would a guy need to struggle through 4 years of college, give up 4 years of pay, and pay 4 years of college tuition? It simply does not make sense for the “low end” of men to pay the costs to earn a college degree when they can spend those 4 years in the work force instead, getting experience, get paid for that time instead of paying tuition, and STILL be making more than the set of female college graduates who end up in teaching, social work, and the like.

Just because they’re not going to college doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Incentives matter — and they often explain quite a bit, too.

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