Up to the early 1960's, less educated women were more likely to work than highly educated women. The trend sharply reversed during the past several decades, so that now propensity to work and education are positively related for women (as well as men). This is partly because highly educated women have a lower tendency to marry, but the labor force trend by education achievement holds also for married women. The Times article gives the impression that this education-work trend has reversed again in recent years, but although the trend has flattened, there is no evidence of reversal (I had the input of Casey Mulligan and Kevin Murphy, two colleagues who have worked extensively on labor force participation rates of women).
Highly educated men continue to work full time much more than highly educated women, although the difference between these propensities has declined during the past several decades. The Times article and Posner concentrate on different work propensities of male and female graduates of elite professional schools, but the difference between the sexes also holds for graduates of other professional schools. Indeed, the gap in the propensities to work of men and women are probably greater for the lesser schools since female graduates of elite colleges and professional schools are less likely to marry than female graduates of lesser institutions.
As Posner indicates, the main reason for this difference is that women drop out of the labor force, or work only part time, in order to care for their young children. Women rather than men do most of the child-care for various reasons, including biological ones, but I will not go over the different explanations. The division of labor between men and women is discussed systematically in my A Treatise on the Family.
Posner goes on to ask: should admission policies of schools take into account the fact that female graduates of elite (and I would add other professional schools) work full time much less than male graduates? That question was openly discussed at departmental meetings when I was a young faculty member at Columbia University. Even though female students did at least as well in the economics program as male students, the issue was whether graduate fellowships should be less readily given to women since they were then so much less likely to work full time later on. I am proud that many of our female students went on to distinguished careers in economics, but the overall female labor force drop out rate was higher than that of male graduates.
In discussing what professional schools should do with respect to admissions of female applicants, Posner claims a difference between the private interests of professional schools, and the social benefits from graduates-an externality in the language of economists. However, I believe that differences between private and social benefits are small in the two types of professional schools he highlights: business and law schools. They generally get almost no direct support from the federal government, and relatively little from state governments.
Moreover, the private gain to a working lawyer or MBA graduate seems to capture pretty much all the social gain from their work. Posner stresses the potential innovations produced by these graduates, and the taxes they pay. But major innovations from graduates of these schools are surely rare, and taxes affect the incentives of everyone, not only professional school graduates. Moreover, taxes would generally have little affect on the incentive to get additional schooling if say the income tax rate is pretty flat. I believe it is partly because externalities from graduates of law and business schools are so small that little taxpayer money goes into subsidizing these programs, although I should add that economists have had difficulty finding major externalities from most types of education.
Since the market for applicants to professional schools is highly competitive, and since external benefits from the work of their graduates are probably not important (except possibly in medicine), the best policy would seem to be to allow the market to continue to work in determining admissions of male and female applicants. Schools might be recognizing that even though female graduates work less, male students prefer having many female classmates, and visa versa, that female graduates who do not work in the labor force are still active in fund-raising activities for their alma maters, or there may be other gains from having smart female students along with smart males.
To be sure, the market in admissions is regulated since affirmative action pressures in the guise of anti-discrimination policies prevent schools from taking male applicants in preference to female applicants with equal or even better school records. Posner recognizes that the logic of his position implies that a relevant measure of discrimination might also include their propensity to work after graduation.
He takes an anti-"profiling" stance by claiming that using potential work experience along with the school records of male and female applicants in determining admissions would be "offensive‚Äù"since many women graduates work full time, and some men do not. Yet not all top students at Harvard College do well at Yale Law School, while some students with poor grades would do well if given the opportunity, but surely he would not want to abandon using grades and performance at Harvard or other schools as one of the predictors of their performance at professional schools, and hence as an important determinant of admissions?
Posner would like professional schools to give female graduates (and men too presumably) a bonus if they work and earn a lot. That is hardly more practical than penalizing women and men who drop-out of the labor force. Would graduates who succeed in another field also merit a bonus (or penalty)? Should female graduates who do not work full time in order to care for their children get a bonus if the children do unusually well in school? For these and other reasons I cannot get excited about this proposal.
Given the strong competition among law and business schools, and the absence of significant external benefits, I do not believe we can do better than allowing these professional schools to decide on admissions using college records and special exams as the major guide. For various reasons, even without current anti-discrimination laws, I doubt whether the fraction of female applicants who are admitted to elite and other professional schools would change very much.