Academic journal article Population

Fewer Singles among Highly Educated Women. A Gender Reversal of Hypergamy across Cohorts in France

Academic journal article Population

Fewer Singles among Highly Educated Women. A Gender Reversal of Hypergamy across Cohorts in France

Article excerpt

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In addition to the well-known tendency to choose a partner with similar social characteristics, known as assortative mating (for a literature review, see Bouchet-Valat, 2014a), the strongly gendered nature of heterosexual partner choice has long been observed by anthropologists and sociologists. In many societies, this behaviour takes the form of female hypergamy or male hypogamy, i.e. a propensity for individuals to form couples in which the woman is of lower status than the man in one or more respects: age, height, stratum of a caste system, educational level and occupation, or social status more generally. The family being a central institution of socialization and social reproduction, one may suspect that constructing a position of inferiority for women represents a key factor of male dominance and its persistence across generations. So it is interesting to examine how female hypergamy has been affected by the major changes in women's status over the twentieth century.

This article focuses on educational hypergamy as an indicator of partners' social status at first union formation, education being the main determinant of individuals' lifestyle and peer associations at this age (Pan Ké Shon, 1998; Erlich, 1998), but also one of the strongest indicators of their future working career and social status. The level of education is one of the key items of information available to individuals - consciously or unconsciously - when they meet potential partners. On the contrary, jobs occupied over the working career may partly reflect choices made after union formation, making it difficult to clearly discern the gendered criteria of partner choice.

Moreover, educational level is the dimension of social status that has changed most radically in terms of gender disparities. The educational expansion that occurred in France after the Second World War affected both sexes, but girls especially (Baudelot and Establet, 1992). Now that women are more highly educated, on average, than men, couples where the woman is more academically qualified than her partner have inevitably become more frequent than the reverse (Guichard-Claudic et al., 2009) - unless, that is, the most qualified women remain single. In this respect, women's educational superiority is on a different level from the more limited and localized changes concerning, for example, the gender division of labour, and constitutes a case of large-scale "gender reversal" (Kergoat et al., 2008). If women are to develop the potential to overtake their partners in their careers, then a high cultural capital, even if not always used in working life - or not fully at least - is an essential prerequisite. Alongside other major transformations, such as the massive growth in female labour force participation, this movement may contribute to a change in the balance of power within the couple, and hence a questioning of gender roles - even if it probably lacks the strength to produce a result of this kind on its own.

Recent research (Esteve et al., 2012) has shown that while female educational hypergamy was more frequent than the reverse in most countries of the world in the 1970s, it has declined substantially since them, to the point of becoming a minority situation in the 2000s in many societies. These findings suggest a need to revise an outdated conception of the relationship between gender, education and union formation whereby a high level of education is a handicap for women on the marriage market. This article looks more closely at this shift in behaviours by examining changes across cohorts in France.

We begin by describing the signification of female hypergamy and the mechanisms that explain its existence, the changes one might expect to see across cohorts, and the results of previous research conducted in various countries. Using data from the Family History Survey (Étude de l'histoire familiale, EHF, INSEE-INED, 1999), we will then study the first unions of cohorts born between 1920 and 1970, exploring trends in hypergamy first in terms of raw composition, then controlling for the influence of constraints arising from the educational distribution of male and female populations within each cohort (relative hypergamy) as a means to capture changes in social norms and individual preferences. …

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