New research suggests mixed-gender high schools perpetuate gender gap

Eric Owens | Editor

Two economics professors at the University of California, Davis have published a paper arguing that mixed-gender high schools are at least partially to blame for the persistent gender gap in the salaries of men and women.

In a working paper published by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research, economists Massimo Anelli and Giovanni Peri demonstrate that students who attended all-boys or all-girls high schools are considerably more likely to embrace college majors associated with high-paying jobs, such as medicine or engineering.

Also, women who attended a high school with a notably large percentage of other females are more likely to go on to choose the kinds of majors that tend to lead to high-paying jobs, the researchers found.

On the other hand, female students who attended ordinary mixed-gender schools are more likely to choose stereotypical majors that will likely lead to lower short-run earnings, lower long-run earnings and limited overall career potential.

For women, then, it seems one great way to combat the gender gap in earnings is to put more high school girls in classrooms with no boys — or at least substantially fewer boys.

The working paper, entitled “The Long Run Effects of High-School Class Gender Composition,” analyzes whether the gender composition of high school classmates affects the choice of major and, consequently, long-term earning potential.

The professors behind the study used a cohort of 30,000 Italian students who graduated from high school between 1985 and 2005 as their data set. They attempted to control for a number of factors besides gender, including the varying quality of high schools and individual skills. To control for family income, college exit scores were used as a proxy.

The researchers found that the gender ratio of high school classmates considerably and consistently affected the choices students later made about their majors.

As Anelli and Peri note, women have surpassed men in college graduation rates in the United States and most other developed countries. Nevertheless, a striking gender gap persists in the salaries men and women make — a gap that is readily apparent even during the first year after college graduation.

One obvious reason is that men and women — as groups — make substantially different choices when it comes to college majors. This phenomenon generally holds true throughout the developed world.

In the U.S., more women choose to major in humanities fields, such as English. Very nearly two-thirds of all humanities degrees go to women. Meanwhile, more men choose to major in engineering and the hard sciences. In engineering, for example, about 80 percent of recent grads are male.

Among college-educated people in the U.S., the economists note, the choice of major correlates strongly with earnings and career opportunities. For example, engineers bring home almost $55,000 per year one year after graduating from college. Newly-minted grads with humanities majors make only about $31,500.

The paper focused only on high schools in Italy, where the researchers note high school students typically attend all of their classes with the same group of approximately 30 students.

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