College education and gender equality impacts marriage in America

A Penn State researcher discovered that as society increasingly accepts gender equality, more women without a college degree are remaining unmarried, while those with a degree are experiencing increased entry into marriage. This increased acceptance of gender equality has also influenced divorce rates to drop across the United States.                  

Léa Pessin, a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development postdoctoral fellow in the Population Research Institute (PRI), found in her latest study that society’s gender norms and women’s college degree status affects the rate of marriage entry and predicts the rate of divorce in America. Her results not only support the gender revolution framework, but also sheds light on marriage obstacles that lower-educated women face in a gender-equal society. Her study was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

According to Pessin, when women’s roles in both the home and the workplace began shifting, it caused the decline in marriage and fertility and the increase in divorce, but since the eighties, the U.S. has seen divorce rates plateau and decline as well as fertility levels improve.

One explanation of the fluctuations seen in relationship stability and fertility is what Pessin refers to as the gender revolution framework; it states that these changes may be understood if a society’s acceptance of egalitarianism over traditional gender norms is considered. According to the framework, individual-level marriage behavior is connected to society-level gender norms. However, she maintains, “the less educated lack the resources to maintain an egalitarian relationship causing a divergence between the two classes.”

Several previous studies have explored the gender revolution framework’s predictions of fertility levels, but this is the first to clearly examine the framework’s view on marriage and divorce and to explicitly consider changes in marriage selectivity when examining the relationship between changing gender norms and partnership behavior.

Pessin’s study suggests that in the U.S., acceptance of egalitarian gender norms should influence marriage and divorce rates disproportionally between different educational groups. Her study is also one of the first to consider how college education affects the relationship that occurs between contextual gender norms and individual-level marriage decisions, which has not been studied before in similar research.

This study also contributes a more thorough understanding of college education’s influence on the gender revolution framework, uses longitudinal data to track the changes of accepted gender norms and marriage dynamics over time, rather than at a single instance, and studies both the entry and exit of marriage to understand marriage selectivity and its effects on contextual gender norms and marriage dynamics.

The data was gathered from the General Social Surveys and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to correlate regionally measure gender norms to marital histories for marriages that occurred between 1968 and 2012.

Pessin concluded that regional gender norms and marriage in the U.S. are moderated by women’s college degree status; as regions moved towards gender equality, a decrease in marriage entry was seen for women who did not hold a degree. “Overall, my results indicate that the gender revolution framework’s predictions only apply to the college-educated due to rising barriers for non-degreed individuals to enter and maintain a dual-earner and dual-caregiver marriage. This supports the idea that the outcome of the gender revolution is bifurcated, or split, leading these groups down different relationship paths than what they might desire,” Pessin said.

This study adds to the literature on gender norms, education, and marriage, but more research needs to be done before the problems the lower-educated working families face can be addressed. Pessin is currently working to conduct a cross-national study where she is looking to see how other countries’ support for working families affects marriage patterns.

Pessin also hopes to better measure the correlation between individual’s attitudes towards ideal gender roles and their partnership preferences as well as provide a single theory that tells both sides of the story. “We don’t really have one theory that puts it all together, so this paper is one step at an attempt, but I think there is much more work that needs to be done.”

This publication was made possible with support from the Population Research Institute, part of the Social Science Research Institute