"It is delicate territory, because it is not a bad thing that women had these opportunities," Willetts said, as quoted by the Guardian. "But it widened the gap in household incomes, because you suddenly had two-earner couples, both of whom were well-educated, compared with often workless households where nobody was educated."
Willetts is wrong to attribute the UK's high unemployment rate to women's education gains, said Heidi Hartmann, president of the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research. But he's right about well-educated women pairing off with well-educated men.
"Marriage is a sorting effect," she said. "Highly educated women are more likely to work, earn high wages, and marry highly educated men. That might increase income inequality."
But educated women are earning bread for low-income families too, she added. In the U.S., low-income women go to college more than low-income men, and their college premium -- the life-long wage bonus we get from attending college -- raises their earnings potential against men. In other words, women's education gains are making us all richer, but the rich are getting richer faster.
"Highly educated women are more likely to work, earn high wages, and marry highly educated men. That might increase income inequality."
To a certain extent, I responded mischievously, jobs must be zero sum. If women are naturally better communicators and they're taking over the majority of communications-based positions, then they are taking jobs that previously would have gone to men. There is, for example, only one president of Harvard or Columbia University. If that job goes to a woman, she's taken a job that would have gone to a man.
"That's true," Hartmann responded, "but the more people who go to college, the more colleges we have, and the more presidency jobs that are open. It's like that across the economy. Competition makes a more vibrant economy."
Hartmann went further in a follow-up email: "From the point of view of increasing a nation's productivity we shouldn't want to keep a whole gender down (maybe the next Einstein is female) just as we shouldn't want to keep lower income kids, boys or girls, from achieving their highest potential either."
For better or worse, she added, men and women often find that the stiffest job competition comes from within their own sex. Two out of every five jobs in the US are at least 75% employed by men or women (eg plumbers for men and kindergarten teachers for women).
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