NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

The Quiet Revolution That Transformed Women's Work

"The birth control pill... had the direct effect of reducing both the risk and the cost of having sex. It therefore also eliminated an important reason for early marriage, making investment in a career-oriented education more feasible."

About 35 years ago, a revolution took place in the labor market and educational experiences of American women. In From the Valley to the Summit: The Quiet Revolution That Transformed Women's Work (NBER Working Paper No. 10335), NBER Research Associate Claudia Goldin describes the changes that took place in women's labor market expectations, their labor market participation, college majors, college graduation rates, professional degrees, and age at first marriage.

In 1968, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth asked females aged 14 to 21 what they expected to be doing at age 35. About 30 percent of the 20 to 21 year olds said they would be working. By 1975, 65 percent of the younger women, then also 20 to 21 years old, said they would be working. The percentage rose until 1979 and then remained substantially unchanged throughout the 1980s.

This change in labor market expectations was accompanied by radical changes in educational concentrations as women shifted from majors that were job- or consumption-oriented to those that rewarded long-term investment in a career. In 1966, 40 percent of female college graduates majored in education, 17 percent majored in English & Literature or foreign languages, and 2 percent majored in Business & Management. By 1998, only 12 percent of women majored in education; enrollment in business majors soared. In fact, 22 percent of all female undergraduates majored in business by 1988, when undergraduate interest in the subject peaked. Overall, measures of sex segregation in college majors fell by half between 1966 and 1998.

Women's educational investment also rose sharply. For those born from 1946 to 1965, the ratio of women-to-men graduating from college increased from 0.65 to more than 0.95. Women also began enrolling in postgraduate medical, dental, legal, and MBA programs. In 1970, female first-year students in law schools represented less than 5 percent of all such students -- for medical schools, the figure for females was 10 percent. Then, the number of female first-year students in these programs began climbing. By the 1990s, roughly 45 percent of all first-year students in law schools were women and more than 40 percent were in medical school.

What caused these changes? Goldin considers three possibilities: the passage of government mandates outlawing discrimination against women in hiring and higher education; changes in attitudes resulting from the resurgence of feminism following the Civil Rights movement; and the invention of reliable contraception. Although government mandates and changes in attitudes clearly were contributing factors, research on the effect of anti-discrimination laws has not shown that they had a strong effect on women's employment and earnings. Measures of the effect of feminist perspectives are harder to quantify. The birth control pill, though, had the direct effect of reducing both the risk and the cost of having sex. It therefore also eliminated an important reason for early marriage, making investment in a career-oriented education more feasible.

Previous research on the effect of changes in state laws that allowed young women access to birth control pills suggests that it is strongly and positively related to both age at first marriage and the fraction of women pursuing professional careers. Because reliable contraception combined with changing social attitudes and laws making labor markets more hospitable, large numbers of women left traditional forms of female employment and sought careers. They are the reason that today's commentators can have meaningful discussions about "women at the top."

-- Linda Gorman


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