The Surprising Glass Ceiling in Sweden and France

Female Human Capital

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Apr 20, 2012    •    TIME TO READ: 1 minute

To one group of economists, oral contraception is all about human capital.

1970 appears to have been a turning point. 40 years ago, increasingly, women started entering law school, medical school and other professional programs after college. Instead of majoring in education, more women became judges, physicians, dentists, architects, veterinarians. They entered professions that required years of their time.

As a result, female human capital–a woman’s accumulation of productive knowledge–became more valuable.

Asking why, some economists are saying one reason is oral contraception. The proliferation of birth control pills among unmarried women that started during the early 1970s helped them to time marriage and children. Once women could plan child birth, they could better determine when and how to develop their professional skills-their human capital. They could enter and complete longer educational programs, decide the duration of employment, and have control over professional goals. As a result, women entering labor markets could earn more. Earning more, their value climbed in marriage markets. And, because more women were marrying later, postponing finding a spouse was a less costly decision since, as economists Goldin and Katz express it, marriage markets for older women “thickened.”

Our bottom line: A recent economic study suggests that the pill helped to narrow the gender wage gap, to “upgrade” women’s career choices and to encourage later marriages and child birth. I wonder also whether it materially contributed to U.S. economic growth (but could not find data to confirm it.) Yes, oral contraception is a major social issue but its economic significance is probably considerable.

I started researching the economic impact of oral contraception after reading NY Times financial journalist, Annie Lowrey’s economix blog. That took me to papers by Goldin and Katz from 2002 and a group from the University of Michigan. I also looked at an interesting discussion of “The Efficiency of Gender Equity.”

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