The True Secret of Female MBA's?

We recently solicited your questions for Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, whose research we cite in SuperFreakonomics regarding the male-female pay gap, particularly among female MBA’s.

Their answers will be coming soon. In the interim, consider this sensible objection from a reader named Lisa:

I am in the midst of enjoying your second book but have to write to you regarding your discussion of women MBA’s, pp. 44-46.

First of all, I’m not sure I appreciate the company we’re keeping in your book — prostitutes and school-teachers — under the ghettoization umbrella, but I suppose that debate is for another day.

I’m writing to disabuse you of your surprise about women MBA’s behavior:

“This is a strange twist. Many of the best and brightest women in the U.S. get an MBA so they can earn high wages, but they end up marrying the best and brightest men, who also earn high wages — which affords these women the luxury of not having to work so much. … Perhaps they never would have met such husbands if they hadn’t gone to business school.”

Would you cut us some slack? I think we are smarter than you give us credit for! Especially for two guys who are willing to go back 20-plus years to understand that the drop in crime in the 1990’s was due to the outcome of Roe v. Wade! You need a similarly long perspective on this issue because you are missing the boat.

Many of us — here’s the surprise — got our MBAs precisely because we wanted to have children and work, and we knew we wouldn’t be able to recover from the economic hit nearly as well unless we had an MBA to accelerate us back up the speed ramp when we re-entered the workforce post-child-raising! In fact, one could argue that having an MBA helps on the pregnancy end too, with presumably higher skills and therefore occasionally higher leverage to negotiate a better childcare leave than we might have otherwise.

I was raised in the 1970s, with the expectation from the feminist movement that I would work, in addition to the expectation from my mother’s own modeling that I would mother. Many of my well-educated friends with advanced degrees have stepped down to part-time work during their child-raising years. And it will be extremely interesting to see what we do as our kids get to college and out of the nest. I can only speak for myself: I dropped down to part-time when my oldest was born. I have further dropped back to a sole-practitioner consultancy for the flexibility. Some days it feels like I have only my little toenail in the workforce, but nonetheless it is there. And I feel more confident that I will be able to ramp back up in whatever capacity I choose once my kids have left — because I have the MBA qualification and resulting experience. The degree has enabled me to have credentials as a consultant and I will build on those as I re-enter the workforce.

I both wanted to get this off my chest as well as suggest further research on highly educated women and part-time work – a topic near and dear. Thanks for listening – and good luck with book 3!

Kind regards,

I think you will agree that Lisa makes excellent points. She also reinforces my belief that there has never been a feedback machine anywhere near as efficient as the internet.


My wife always wanted to be a stay at home mom. When I was taking too long to finish up my undergrad she said "I'm bored" and went and got her MBA (with her German undergrad it came down to either more German, an MBA or a law degree).

Now she's a stay at home mom like she has always wanted.


I was raised in the feminist era, which appears to be over. I was an ardent part of the feminist movement, and I am still an ardent feminist. I am highly educated but not with lucrative or flexible skills - I spent 13 years in college and graduate school to become a poorly paid publish-or-perish university professor - I did publish, quality and quantity, but still nearly perished, in part for being female and in part for not having been socialized into professional workways. (I have returned to school for more degrees.)What I do not regret is having forsaken partner and children throughout graduate school - an absolute requirement - then through the pre-tenure years - impossible to find a partner by then. (I have time, inclination, opportunity, partner, plans for a child now.)What I do not - CAN-not - understand, EVER, is why women, as opposed to men, rear children, do housework, change their last names on marriage (and seemingly accept and use the term "girl"). My education and research was in sociology, including social and feminist theory, the history of social thought, and gender studies - and still: I do not understand!!!! Can someone edify me????


matt anderson

paging thomas sowell. paging thomas sowell.

Jim Purdy

Excellent comments from Lisa, but what's this comment all about:

"I'm not sure I appreciate the company we're keeping in your book - prostitutes and school-teachers - under the ghettoization umbrella"

Teachers? Ghettoization? Do I detect some kind of MBA snobbery? Teachers are underpaid and under-respected, but that doesn't make their work less important than MBAs.

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E. Gallagher

I could give you my anecdotal story (PhD, mom, one toenail in the workforce, primary care giver, etc) . I appreciate Lisa's perspective, but it is not exactly mine. I think that every story is different. The statistics are interesting, but we all have our own spin.

I also think we all change as we grow through the education years, the partner-ing years, the mothering years and probably the post-mothering years. So motives are not always the same through time. This makes the statistical analysis even more confusing (not stationary).

I think that Levitt and Dubner could write a whole book just on the statistics of modern women and the work, wife, baby,education conundrum. I would read it!


I am not sure how much one can grow after taking a good long break of few years .... today world is changing in so fast I guess if you are out of work for an year ... you are totally out of sync ... I guess in the book there is a good point mentioned on the reason which supports lower wage for female MBA graduates .


Bell curves. There will be a few who plan ahead, but most don't.


I think your confusion is created by the framing of the issue: "Many of the best and brightest women in the U.S. get an MBA so they can earn high wages..." I don't believe that is accurate. I would say that many of the best and brightest women in the U.S. get an MBA because it gives them security and the flexibility to do what they want to do. For some, at some point or for some period of time, that is staying home or working less. Trading extra income for more free time/family time is certainly a rational choice. A good education (and high earning husband) simply make more options available to women.


To NativeWoman, who believes that the "feminist era" is over:

If by "feminist era," you mean a movement to make women just like men and essentially de-feminize them, you may be right. However, I think that it has never been so clear in society as it is now that women can do anything they want to do...and STILL be women and embrace their feminity and use it to bring a different perspective to anything they choose to do. Equality does not mean sameness. If we have different interests or inclinations from men, that is okay. If we choose to stay home with children, that is okay. If we choose to take our husband's last name, that is okay. It does not make us lesser persons or in any way diminish us.

For a long time, we were told that we could "have everything"---a family AND a career. That is still true to some extent, and many women successfully balance the two. But we must respect the fact that other women don't WANT "everything." And that is okay, they can make a choice and shouldn't have to feel guilty about it.

I am a practicing attorney who works full-time and enjoys the work, for the most part. But I am comfortable that at some point down the line, when my first child is born, I may want to readjust my priorities. And that will be okay.


David L

Most women with undergraduate degrees don't go straight to stay-at-home mom-hood. Most of them spend some period of their lives working full-time.

Don't forget, then, that and MBA is a low-risk alternative to the often tenuous proposition of entering the workforce as a 22-year-old entry-level job candidate. So irrespective of a woman's intentions to eventually scale back with motherhood (or not to), an MBA acts as a term extension on the loan against reality that is college--for both men and women.

The fact that women who get their MBAs will have a higher propensity to marry men who will ultimately be successful as well could be an intended or unintended consequence, as the case may be.


I'd like to suggest that many of the best and brightest women get an MBA just because they can. The motivation of some many be increased earning potential but not all. Some probably just relish the challenge or are grateful for the opportunity. The post-MBA financial divide comes in because, with advanced degree in hand, what men and women then chose to do with their lives differ. Yes becoming a housewife is one option and that accounts for some of the earnings discrepancy. But I don't think that's specific to MBAs - I bet the 'life choices' discrepancy is similar in other groups of peers - regular college graduates, PhDs, etc. The financial discrepancy would be greatest among MBAs only because the range of earning potential is greatest among this group.

For what it's worth. among my peers with science PhDs, my female friends have gone on to do a range of roles including housewives and teachers as well as competitive academic and private sector jobs for which a PhD is required. My male peers have, I think without exception, followed an obvious high status career path. Could it be simply that, on average, men are more career-status-salary-hungry than women?



Really the whole thing boils down to this and it is not just women and men although for a long time women were shutout. Everyone pretty much starts out in life wanting to earn high wages. Of course not everyone can earn high wages, otherwise it would not be a high wage. So there is a weeding out process that happens. Only the best get to earn the high wages.

Along the way some people realize there are more important things in life than high wages. LIke time and time with a family. I know I have made decisions in my career that have affected my wages. I could be earning more, but I would not give up the time I spend with the family to earn more.


I haven't read Super Freakonomics yet... but personal stories can always find holes and deviate from the statistical average. I look forward to seeing some hard data on this to back up people's points.



Not sure what your exact question is. My best understanding of your question is that you are asking the following:

"What I do not - CAN-not - understand, EVER, is why women, as opposed to men, rear children, do housework, change their last names on marriage"

Some possible reasons.

1. They enjoy it. Some women enjoy raising their kids. I as a man enjoy spending time with my kids as well but I find I am unable to breastfeed my new-born. My wife finds this experience enjoyable and it's also a bonding time for her and our daughter. So even though I'll be out of work soon and splitting the house work and child rearing, she is not going back to work because she enjoys the time at home.

2. Women take the name of their husband as a tradition. Hyphenating last names works for many. But for kids it will only get more confusing as they start to hyphenate their names with both of their parents and then the same for the following generation. It just makes for very long names.

3. I think housework is split evenly in household more and more so. Almost to the point where the man is doing the majority by splitting inside the house chores and doing 90% of garage and outside chores. (from my experience).



@2: Do you have a really concrete reasons to believe it was because you're a woman, or are you just conveniently assuming that? My impression is that modern institutions, especially education ones and other harbringers of the new left, are biased *towards* women because they're afraid of appearing sexist.


Some crazy comments here, all right.

I am one of those women with an MBA (in finance). After 30-odd years in corporate life, I can tell you with certainty that wage discrimination based on sex is the overriding reason for the pay gap. I have been in countless hiring committee rooms and heard the most stupid excuses for it by other hiring managers:

(for a man): "He just got married; he'll have kids & then work harder (to support his family)".

(for a woman): "She just got married; she'll have kids & then leave."

When men ask for a raise, he's respected. When women ask for a raise, she's pushy. Here's the thing, though, girls: YOU HAVE TO ASK, AND ASK AGAIN.

At my school, the higher grades were earned by women. Who seem to be more attentive to details like homework.

Am still shaking my head at the attorney's comment - she seems to think that equal pay is "de-feminizing". No wonder there's a wage gap.


Adam L


As a highly educated person, I doubt that I have to point out the historical anthropological reasons that women have traditionally worked within/near the home while men ventured further. I would say that our modern system (if it's even possible to generalize a single modern system anymore) may partly reflect some of the same underlying reasons, but has at least as much to do with traditions that were established when the division of gender roles was done on a much more practical basis.

I hope this doesn't offend you. I would be interested to hear your further thoughts.

Michael "mickeyrad" Radosevich

Of "the best & the brightest" [sic], few, if any, go to MBA school. Of the people I have known, no one who was of more than middling intelligence went to MBA school.

Math - yes. Science - yes. History - yes. English - yes. Psychology - yes. Economics - yes. Law - yes. Medicine - yes.

Business school? No. The kids who went to business school were not bright - not bright at all. And they seem to have progressed little in the ensuing years.

Michael Radosevich

Eileen Wyatt

What I do not - CAN-not - understand, EVER, is why women, as opposed to men, rear children, do housework, change their last names on marriage

Weren't the social forces behind these cultural norms covered in your coursework for your sociology degree(s)?

If you mean that you don't like these norms, that's why a small but noticeable number of couples violate them. Set a good example by being one of those couples. Social change happens by people doing it.

Michael K

I think Lisa misses a critical point. Her statement, "And I feel more confident that I will be able to ramp back up in whatever capacity I choose once my kids have left", doesn't take into account what potential employers believe about her ability to ramp back up.

My experience is Hiring Managers don't like employment gaps, for whatever reason. Some may even resent the fact that a woman had the opportunity to take extended leaves of absence or decreased workloads.