New Working Paper Examines Marriage and Job Patterns in Latin America

July 27, 2010
by Doug Gavel

Does getting a better education improve a woman’s chances to marry and to do so with a more educated man? Much of the research on marriage and family formation for the United States indicates that it does. However, that was not the finding for Latin America, based on a new Harvard Kennedy School Working Paper co-authored by Ina Ganguli, Ricardo Hausmann, and Martina Viarengo. The paper enhances understanding of the factors affecting the marriage market and women’s labor force participation for this region.

The paper, titled “‛Schooling Can’t Buy Me Love’: Marriage, Work, and the Gender Education Gap in Latin America,” examines the ways in which education affects who stays single, who marries whom and who goes to work in Latin American countries.

Using census data from more than 40 countries, the authors establish a set of stylized facts that paint an interesting picture. First, the paper finds that in Latin America, more highly educated women (those with a high school diploma or higher) between 30 and 55 years old are less likely to be married than either less educated women or equally educated men. This surprising finding prompted the authors to look into other aspects of family formation.

When the more educated Latin American women do marry, the authors found, they tend to do so in disproportionate numbers with less educated men. For example, in Brazil and Colombia, close to 40 percent of skilled women marry men less educated than themselves, while in the United States the proportion is only about 16 percent. Interestingly, when a more educated Latin American woman marries a less educated man, she is more likely to work than when she marries an equally educated man. The authors also find that when a highly educated woman marries a less educated man, the man she marries tends to earn more than would be expected given his observable characteristics such as his age or his level of schooling. That is, an educated Latin American woman will marry a less educated husband if his salary is not too low. Otherwise, she would rather stay single.

The authors argue that this set of observations may reflect different geographic and cultural preferences regarding whether women should work. “The simplest explanation is that skilled men in the US and Latin America differ in their valuation of the returns to having a stay-home wife versus a working wife,” the authors explain. “US skilled men prefer a working skilled wife to a stay-home wife, while Latin American men do not. Latin American women prefer a skilled husband who supports her desire to work, but Latin American men would prefer a lower-skilled wife who stays home. However, a lower-skilled husband would agree to a high-skilled wife working. This logic explains why we find so many skilled women staying single or marrying less educated men, yet doing so mainly with the more productive low skilled men.”

Ina Ganguli is a PhD Candidate in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Doctoral Fellow at the Center for International Development. She was previously an Embassy Policy Specialist in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine, and a Bundestag International Parliamentary Program Fellow in Germany.

Ricardo Hausmann is director of the Center for International Development and professor of the practice of economic development at Harvard Kennedy School. Previously, he served as the first Chief Economist of the Inter-American Development Bank (1994-2000), where he created the Research Department. He has served as Minister of Planning of Venezuela (1992-1993) and as a member of the Board of the Central Bank of Venezuela.

Martina Viarengo is an Economist at the London School of Economics and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Development and the Harvard Kennedy School. In the past several years, Martina has been examining education policy and labor market outcomes in the OECD and developing countries. Specifically, she has devoted her academic research to understanding how to improve access to quality education to reduce poverty and inequality. In 2009, she was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and she was named Newton International Fellow by the British Academy, Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. In 2006, Dr. Viarengo was a Rotary Scholar in Germany.

The research is part of “Closing the Global Gender Gap: A Call to Action,” an initiative sponsored by the Women and Public Policy Program and the Center for International Development at Harvard University with support from ExxonMobil’s Educating Women and Girls Initiative and the Women’s Leadership Board of Harvard Kennedy School.

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Photograph of Ricardo Hausmann

Ricardo Hausmann, director, Center for International Development

“US skilled men prefer a working skilled wife to a stay-home wife, while Latin American men do not. Latin American women prefer a skilled husband who supports her desire to work, but Latin American men would prefer a lower-skilled wife who stays home. However, a lower-skilled husband would agree to a high-skilled wife working. This logic explains why we find so many skilled women staying single or marrying less educated men, yet doing so mainly with the more productive low skilled men.”

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