Step it up, dudes…

I once read that economics is “politics in drag”—it bandies about as if it were a purely objective, value-neutral science, when in fact, it’s a vehicle for enacting deeply-held ideologies about what belongs in the public sphere—or not, the dogma of individual responsibility, and the role of collective institutions in facilitating social inclusion and equity. Or at least that’s what Dr. Nancy Folbre’s analysis of economics as a “masculine domain” means to me.

This is not to say that we should abandon the field. Quite the opposite, we need more women like Ruth and Dr. Folbre who can expertly bring “woman’s work” into the picture and make visible the productive value of and society’s collective responsibility for what has for so long been relegated to the private sphere and placed squarely upon the unpaid shoulders of women and girls.

But changing the field of economics, as with any institution, will require long-term, multi-faceted strategies both within and outside the discipline. We’re talking about challenging deeply held beliefs—not only within organizational and institutional cultures, but also at the very personal, individual level. Amen to Dr. Folbre’s assertion that “men’s reluctance to share the temporal responsibilities of family care” is a “major factor” for closing the wage gap.

But when most men in the U.S. (and not just economists) hold tightly to the belief that they do as much housework as their wives–even though data show that they don’t, we know we’re in for an uphill battle. If we women can’t convince our male partners that the unequal distribution of household labor affects our career and earning capacities (not to mention the tradeoffs that we disproportionately bear in terms of leisure time, according to none other than the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) imagine the potential resistance in the crusty corridors of the economic Old Boy’s Club.

In order to support more women in the field of economics, we need to also promote a broader dialogue about women’s equality—at home, in the workplace, and in society at large. Thankfully, we don’t have to start from scratch, as women activists, researchers, organizations and movements have spent decades getting care work on global political agendas like that of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), The World Bank, and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

But perhaps even more, we need dialogue that encourages us to surface and question our own assumptions and beliefs—about the gendered division of labor (among other things) and the ways that we—men and women both—intentionally and unintentionally benefit from and perpetuate it.

–Alia

 

 

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Gender labor divide shapes world

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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.

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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.

–Ruth

Women lose wage premium for certain college majors by mid-career

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Researchers with the NY Fed explored the pay gap between the sexes.

Here were some notable findings:

*Women earn about 97 cents for each dollar earned by men with the same college major and doing the same jobs among recent college graduates.

*Early in their careers, women earn at least as much as men in 29 of 73 majors. Women’s earnings premiums were for majors such as engineering, treatment therapy and art history.

*Women’s wage premium evaporates as workers approach their mid-career.

Here are the researchers’ possible explanations for their findings:

* Discrimination may be “more widespread” as workers approach the middle of their careers.

* Women are more likely than men to drop out of the labor force to raise kids, cutting their work experience.

*Women with care-taking duties who need schedule flexibility may receive low wages.

Read more: The pay gap between the sexes

–Ruth

Companies crank up using temporary workers

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Alia wrote about “the depths to which private employers will go to extract the most labor from workers for the least cost,” and how on-call workers, those who don’t know when their employers will need them, have trouble making ends meets.

Congressional investigators examined the size of the “contingent” workforce — these are workers who don’t have permanent jobs, tend to earn less than others and are less likely to have access to benefits. The Government Accountability Office found that contingent workers have seen their share of the total labor force grow in recent years, a trend likely tied to the Great Recession. This expansion may explain why there’s been such weak wage growth even though the unemployment rate has trended down for years.

On-call-work issues are particularly salient to women workers. Women tend to make less than men and are more likely than men to head households with only one parent.

–Ruth

Equal opportunity is great…for some of us

One of my long-standing critiques of the way that gender equality has been approached in the U.S. is the over reliance on codifying equal opportunity. The question always comes up — “equal opportunity for whom?” In this post by Caroline Frederickson of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, I was stunned, yet again, by the depths to which private employers will go to extract the most labor from workers for the least cost. And when I say “labor” and “workers,” we’re talking about actual human beings — people — with their own basic needs, aspirations, families, and bottom lines to look out for.

As Ms. Frederickson reports, “because of lack of bargaining power in a weak economy, employees find themselves at the mercy of companies that have adopted a just-in-time system, meaning they keep a pool of workers on call subject to the demands of management.” Having to call-in to find out whether you have work today means that people can’t even count on a weekly salary, much less plan for the things that make employment possible, like affordable, quality child care or transportation. And it should be no surprise by now that it’s women who bear the appalling human, financial and environmental costs of our “free market” race-to-the-bottom economy.

It seems sacrilege to question the importance of equal pay, pregnancy non-discrimination and the like. While policy guarantees to those effects can create some safeguards for women workers, they don’t do anything to alleviate the burden of reproductive labor and care work that still falls pretty squarely on women’s shoulders. Employers may incur short-term increases in their costs, but this in no way shifts the dominant workplace culture that can be downright hostile to employees’ personal and family needs.

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Hooray that women can still work while pregnant. But for someone who has actually been pregnant, pregnancy alone is a colossal physical, mental and emotional job in and of itself, not to mention the human being you get at the end of it. This is tough enough when you have a desk job; more than daunting if you’re in one of the many gendered professions that countless women find themselves in — low-wage work, care giving, teaching, nursing, to name a few. And though I think we’re not supposed to admit it, trying to producing “equal work” compared to that of non-childbearing male peers is a sure-fire recipe for feeling like a constant failure and stretched beyond your limits in every part of your life.

Read more: Behind the pay gap between men and women.

–Alia

Rejecting the ‘Barbie box’

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Actress Amber Heard may not inspire much interest or sympathy among working women. She’s stunning and rich, and worries about things like losing her freedom to fame.

Still, in a recent Elle article, she made an interesting point about not wanting to be put in a “Barbie box” for her work:

“I feel like I’m constantly fighting against my exterior, or this exterior presentation of myself because of how I look or perhaps because of who I’m with.”

There are women whose jobs depend on them looking like someone’s fantasy version of a female. Such work can be lucrative and, depending on a woman’s preferences, satisfying.

But many women feel burdened by employers who create career constraints based on superficial perceptions of gender and capabilities. On a related noted, working mothers know all too well the frustration of finding themselves shoved into a “mommy track” by an employer over fears that family obligations will interfere with productivity.

–Ruth

Who cares about valuing household work? Insurers.

The insurance industry is one part of the economy that cares about valuing the work that parents put into household chores.

As Father’s Day approaches (it’s June 21), Insure.com, which bills itself as the most cited independent consumer-insurance site, calculated that a father’s household tasks, such as mowing the lawn, are worth almost $26,000 per year. That value is based on wages for different chores typically performed by dads, and how much time they spend on those tasks.

Why do insurers care about fairly valuing household work? They want to sell life insurance. Insure.com quoted its managing editor, Robert Beaupre, saying:

“The value of Dad’s contributions around the house and his annual salary are real figures that will need to be covered if something were to happen to him…If you can skip going out to eat at work a couple of times per month, you can probably set aside enough money to pay for a term life insurance policy and give your family that peace of mind.”

Here’s the site’s table showing how it calculated the value of fathers’ household work.

FathersDay061515–Ruth