Gender labor divide shapes world


Women are underrepresented in the field of economics.

Some also seem to be not so interested in business and related topics. Anecdotally, almost 80% of my Twitter followers are men.

As a daughter of two economists, and a former data reporter for the Dow Jones publication MarketWatch, I’ve wondered:

  1. Why aren’t more women in economics?
  2. Why are men a disproportionately large share of consumers of news about business and finance?

Studying how scarce resources are distributed is of particular importance to women. A fresh report from the U.S. Census Bureau shows about one-in-four kids live in families with only one parent, and about five-in-six custodial parents are moms. Indeed, mothers are increasingly the sole or primary breadwinner for households.

And women’s earnings are typically a fraction of their male counterparts’. Check out this new chart from the Economic Policy Institute,  a Washington-based think tank, that illustrates how much less women make than men.


Bottom line: The distribution of cash and resources is paramount for U.S. women and their dependents, i.e. most of the nation’s population.

Economist Nancy Folbre, who has studied the economics of gender and family, among other topics, spoke with Woman’s Work this summer about the wage gap between men and women, why women are underrepresented in economics and men’s role in cutting inequity. She also touched on the possible impacts of a woman president and mandating paid parental leave.

To preface Dr. Folbre’s remarks, here’s a bit of background information:

  1. Women’s earnings are about 80% of men’s among full-time workers, according to the latest BLS data.
  2. After decades of a narrowing earnings gap between the sexes, progress has plateaued in recent years.
  3. Even though women are increasingly going to college, their wage premium evaporates as workers approach mid-career.
  4. Women make up the majority of the most common low-wage jobs.

Now, onto Dr. Folbre’s observations (the interview was edited for clarity and length).

Woman’s Work: What do you see as the No. 1 roadblock to closing the wage gap?

Folbre: The lack of support for family care – affordable daycare, paid family and sick leave, penalties for part-time employment. Part-time work involves a significant penalty in terms of both hourly pay and access to benefits.

But I would also add that men’s reluctance to share the temporal responsibilities of family care is also a major factor.

And discrimination against women remains significant — less explicit than it once was, but deeply embedded in social norms and expectations.

WW: Why are women so underrepresented in economics?

Folbre: Economics is very market-focused, and market work remains a masculine domain. Market logic emphasizes that consenting adults pursue their own self-interest and everybody is better off as a result.

But market logic doesn’t apply to care of dependents, a more traditionally feminine obligation. Children, the sick, and the frail elderly don’t fit the preconditions for consumer sovereignty in market exchange. Most care of dependents takes place outside the market. Women generally take more responsibility for this care than men do.

Economic theory doesn’t provide much insight into this—other than to suggest that women must simply have greater “preferences” for family care, or be more efficient at it.

Most economic theory takes altruistic preferences—or the lack of them—as a given, rather than asking how they are socially constructed or enforced.

Caring for a family member out of a sense of moral obligation is not an activity that can be reduced to market logic. So, I think that market logic is less consistent with women’s actual and anticipated experience than that of men.

The whole concept of concern for other people or interdependent utilities or obligations for other people, these are largely absent from the market paradigm. The textbook assumption is that participants in the market don’t care about other people, they have independent preferences. They are basically making decisions based on prices and income. It’s a very narrow, stripped down characterization. In some instances, it may be accurate. But a lot of the work that women, in particular, do doesn’t involve impersonal transactions.

We live in a world shaped by a moral division of labor that is highly gendered. It’s more acceptable for men than women to behave in purely self-interested ways.

WW: Do you think having a woman head the Federal Reserve could raise interest among women in joining economics?

Folbre: Yes. I think Janet Yellen is someone who’s willing to express concern about unemployment and social well-being, as well as economic growth. She seems both competent and kind. I wouldn’t be surprised if she has a role model effect.

[Editor’s note: Heather Sarsons, a graduate student at Harvard, has studied gender promotion gaps and the difference in recognition for group work among economists, and recently found that there can be a penalty for women who co-author publications with men: “While women who solo-author everything have roughly the same chance of receiving tenure as a man, women who co-author most of their work have a significantly lower probability of receiving tenure.”]

WW: If Congress mandates paid parental leave, will that cut employment?

Folbre: I don’t know. It’s possible that it might. If it did, the effect would be pretty small. A lot depends on who finances [the leave] – whether it’s financed through employee contributions or some other source.

When the question is framed in broad terms, it’s not clear who would be paying for paid family leave. Regardless of how it’s financed, employers are going to pay some costs, in terms of management costs, hiring replacements for workers on leave. On the other hand, they are going to get some big benefits in terms of reduced worker turnover and training costs.

How those two sides of the ledger compare probably [varies] from industry to industry.

WW: If Hillary Clinton or another woman becomes the next president, how great a step will that be for women to achieve political parity with men?

Folbre: I think it will probably be pretty great, but it’s hard to say. [Clinton] has promised to be more proactive about pay equity and childcare and family issues. By framing these issues as central issues, I do think she is having a positive impact.

But there is also the question of what kind of political environment she’ll be operating in. If you look at the Obama administration, there’s been a huge gap with what Obama could have accomplished with support from Congress and what has actually happened.

What’s going to happen about pay equity is going to depend on the outcomes of political elections at every level, including the state levels.


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