Rising levels of education among Indian women have not empowered them to seek spouses who are equally educated, a study has concluded. Comparing marriages between the 1970s and 2000s, the study found that highly educated women married men who were less educated but from more privileged families.

These findings defy global trends on links between marriage and education for women. Entrenched gender roles, caste constraints, low labour-force participation and wage discrimination still restrict women’s choices, experts told IndiaSpend.

Highly educated Indian women married men who were less educated but from more privileged families, found the study, The Emergence of Educational Hypogamy in India, based on the India Human Development Survey, and published as a working paper in December 2019.

The rise in such marriages “reflects deep-rooted gender scripts in India”, the authors wrote. They attribute these marriages to multiple social and economic factors such as caste constraints, lower female participation in the labour market, lower income for women’s work, especially for those with an Arts degree, and limited freedom for women to choose a spouse.

During the past four decades, the proportion of husbands with education greater than their wives, as a proportion of all couples with different educational levels, declined from 90% in the 1970s to 60% in the 2000s. The proportion of marriages in which a woman married a man with less education increased from 10% in the 1970s to 30% in the 2000s.

“Only increasing women’s education does not shift gender inequality,” said Zhiyong Lin, a co-author of the study. In India, “power in marriage selection and socio-economic independence” do not automatically come from education, he explained.

This study, conducted by Lin, Sonalde Desai and Feinian Chen, from the University of Maryland, is one of the few of its kind to examine the relationship between education and marriage in India.

Defying global trends

Around the world, when women get more educated, there are fewer marriages between men of higher education status and women of lower education status, known as hypergamy, and more marriages between spouses at similar education levels, known as homogamy.

For instance, in China and the United States, as women’s education grew, more women married men with similar education levels and the proportion of men marrying women at a lower education level fell, Lin said. “India is an outlier in this case, where there is little change in homogamy”, and more hypogamy, he pointed out.

Women do marry men with lesser education in countries where women are more highly educated than men, such as in some European countries, Lin said. But India does not fit this profile: Female literacy in India increased from 29.8% in 1981 to 65.5% in 2011, as per Census data, but it is still lower than male literacy, which grew from 56.4% to 82.1% in the same period. But the odds of women marrying below their education level were 27% higher in the 1990s and 28% higher in the 2000s when compared to marriages in the 1970s and 1980s, the study found.

A similar increase in hypogamy was confirmed by data from the National Family Health Survey in 2015-16, said Lin.

Leading causes

Marriage is almost universal in India, with the proportion of single women going from 0.9% in 1971 to 3.7% in 2011, the study said. “While Chinese women may choose to remain single rather than marry a less educated mate, this is not an option easily open to Indian women,” the authors wrote.

Also, due to the custom of arranged marriage, “[w]omen don’t have the power to choose their spouses,” said Lin. Fewer than 5% of Indians chose their own partners, the study found. In most arranged marriages, the man and the woman belonged to the same caste, further restricting a woman’s options.

Another reason for the small marriageable pool is consanguineous marriage, in which blood relatives marry. In such marriages, more prevalent in South India, it is 20% more likely for a woman to marry beneath her educational level, the authors found.

In the 1970-’80s, men were three times more likely than women to have a college degree. In the 2000s, this gap had narrowed – 13.9% of men and 11.1% of women had college degrees.

The odds that a woman would marry someone less educated than her were five times higher if she had a higher secondary education or a college degree in the Arts, the study found. In India, a woman is more likely to have an Arts degree – in 2011-’12, 70% of women who graduated were from the humanities stream as compared to 40% of men.

If a woman had an Arts degree, the probability of marrying below her educational level increased from 31% in the 1970s-’80s to 39% in the 1990s to 47% among those who were married in the 2000s, the study found.

Fewer working women

The proportion of working-age women who were either employed or looking for work has reduced from 33% in 1993-’94 to 18.2% in 2017-’18, show the latest data available from the Periodic Labour Force Survey. As many as 25 million women have left the Indian labour force over 10 years to 2015, as we reported in April 2016.

“This is very peculiar to India, that with growth fewer women are participating in the workforce,” said Shamika Ravi, an economist and research director at Brookings India, a think-tank. In South Korea, Japan and China, other countries with patriarchal societies, women’s participation in the labour force increased with economic growth, she said.

One reason for this India-specific situation is that women here tend to be constrained to the house –79.9% of women in 2012 reported not being allowed to visit the health centre without permission from their husbands or other family members – as we reported in 2016.

Source: Periodic Labour Force Survey, 2017-’18 via IndiaSpend

More educated women were unemployed in 2017-’18 than men, according to Periodic Labour Force Survey data. In India, being educated does not necessarily mean that the person will have a job, said Ravi, and one reason for this is the poor quality of education that affects employability. Moreover, with little institutional support for childcare, it is less likely that women will work, she added.

Source: Periodic Labour Force Survey, 2017-’18 via IndiaSpend

A woman who has to manage the home and children along with a job also has fewer employment options in terms of work hours and commute. There is also wage discrimination between men and women which further reduces the returns to women’s education, Ravi said. All these factors mean that even educated women would have to seek partners with better economic status, she pointed out.

“The most important quality for women in the marriage market is good appearance while the corresponding quality for men is their ability to earn a living,” the study said. “For the younger cohort, a recent study has found that economic potential, trustworthiness and intelligence of the prospective partner are increasingly more valued than other traits and this is true for both men and women.”

It is hard to say whether marriages that were more equal in terms of education levels and in sync with the woman’s choice of her spouse would be better, said Ravi. For instance, she explained, in a society where there is little institutional support for childcare, informal and community networks become important for a family. So even if women get to choose their own spouse, without institutional support, not much would change for them in terms of housework and childcare.

Alternate conclusion

In contrast to these findings by Lin, Desai and Chen, another study, based on data from the third National Family Health Survey, found that more women married a spouse at a similar level of education from 1996 to 2006 compared to marriages between 1964 and 1984. Marriages between men and women at the same educational level were most common in rural areas between those who were illiterate and in urban areas among those who were highly educated, found a 2016 study by Kakoli Borkotoky and Ashish Kumar Gupta of the Population Council.

But the two studies use different methodologies, Lin said. The 2016 study was only descriptive, showing overall changes in marriage patterns, and did not distinguish between higher secondary and higher education. The authors did not take into consideration the overall increase in the level of education in the country and the reduced gap in education levels between men and women.

Lin’s study found that there is a slight increase in homogamy but that this change was not significant when this educational expansion was taken into account.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.