Archive for May 2009
Feminist economists are continuing to make inroads in the blogosphere. Earlier this near, Nancy Folbre, an econ prof from UMass Amherst, joined the blogging team at the New York Times’ Economix. (I’ve written about Folbre before, linking to her own blog, Care Talk.) She’s posted a steady stream of intelligent content, and anyone reading this blog should definitely be reading her as well.
During this recession, many other problems, including huge bank bailouts, are competing for public attention and taxpayers’ money. Sometimes I wonder how closely the Child Well-Being Index would mirror an Adult Wrong-Doing Index. If I were going to construct such a new index, financial malfeasance would rank high among the measurement domains. But in the composite, apathy among those who could do more to help poor children would receive at least an equal weight.
During my long hiatus, I received an email about negotiation and the wage gap (emphasis mine):
I attended a session last week in which the basic premise was, “A woman earns 77 cents for every dollar a man makes and here’s how to fix that”. The presenter then went on to discuss negotiating a young woman’s first salary out of college since that forms the basis for all subsequent salaries. OK, that makes sense in context. However, when I asked what other factors contributed to the disparity, the presenter basically said that there weren’t any except women not valuing themselves enough to negotiate good salaries.
That didn’t make sense to me, so I did a bit of Googling and kept seeing the same statement without a lot of critical analysis. Your blog was one of the few that seemed to take it on and one post I noticed said you would have more to say. However, I didn’t spot anything after that. Do you know of any articles, blog posts, whatever that addresses the issue of what other causes there may be for the 77/100 problem?
The facilitator of this workshop probably meant well, but he or she was teaching something false and quite possibly harmful. As regular readers know well, the wage gap is not entirely due to negotiation – it’s also the result of straightforward discrimination, occupational differences between genders, the housework and childcare that working women are expected to take on, the cumulative effect of time off for maternity leave and childrearing, and much more. It is true that women are less likely to negotiate a higher starting salary, but women are also more likely to be penalized for negotiating.
A lot of people like to argue that women can overcome sexism through personal action, like developing better negotiation skills. This can be an empowering message, but it’s not really true – becoming more assertive in isolation from the rest of the culture will only get you so far. Addressing the wage gap, if that’s something we want to do, requires big policy changes and new cultural norms.
Too often, messages of personal empowerment become about blame. (Barbara Ehrenreich really skewers the self help movement on this point in Bait and Switch.) If all you need is a positive attitude, then you don’t have child care/a promotion/help around the house because you don’t want it badly enough. Want harder! Stop talking about social change!
Estimates vary, but it looks like the abortion rate has ticked up with the recession. Would it be too crass to call abortion a countercyclical asset? Of course, it’s hard to be more offensive than the anti-choice movement, as quoted at Double X:
“Americans, coming off years of hedonism and credit card spending orgies, are now increasingly aborting their babies who were unfortunate enough to be conceived during this economic recession,” Christian radio show host Ingrid Schlueter writes on her blog. “Gone is anything remotely related to the spirit of America past where difficulties were not solved by taking the coward’s or murderer’s way out, but by fulfilling one’s duty and taking responsibility for loved ones, no matter how hard the challenge.”
And who is Schlueter beating up on? Well, here’s a few heart-wrenching examples:
A pregnant woman in Oakland, Calif., already struggling to support three children and an unemployed boyfriend, couldn’t afford bus fare to the abortion clinic. “I just walked here for an hour,” she tells the clinic’s doctor. “I’m sure of my decision.” The same article quotes Stephanie Poggi, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, who says her clients are telling her: “‘I’ve already put off paying my rent, my electric bill. I’m cutting back on my food.’ They’ve run through all the options.”
Let me get this straight. It’s selfish and unpatriotic to have more children than you can support yourself, but both contraception and abortion are murder? Radical social conservatives present so few options for their followers; I really wonder how they manage to attract any supporters outside the top tax bracket.
The Bergmann Effect is a phrase used frequently by feminist economists, but as far as I can tell it isn’t defined online, so I’ve been asked about it a few times. Here, at long last, is the sketch of a definition.
The Bergmann Effect is named after Barbara R. Bergmann, Professor Emeritus at the American University and the University of Maryland, and a pioneer of feminist economics. She didn’t coin the term herself, of course, but when I emailed her she was kind enough to sift back through mailing list discussions and come up with a definition:
The harm done to gender equality in the work-place, and gender equality more broadly, by workplace policies that allow parents time off or allow them flexibility, when such opportunities are utilized by women more than men.
If you’re not used to thinking about incentives, this sounds crazy. How could so-called “family-friendly” workplace practices, which allow women to balance work with childcare, possibly hurt? Bergmann explains in a paper published by Politics & Society in 2008, called Long Leaves, Child Well-Being, and Gender Equality:
Of the measures for resolving work–family conflict proposed by Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers, government programs that provide or pay for nonparental child care would advance gender equality. However, paid parental leaves of six months for both parents, and the encouragement of part-time work, would retard it, and possibly reverse some of the advances toward gender equality that have been made in the home and the workplace. Female jobholders would increase their time at home to a much greater extent than would male jobholders, increasing the share women do of child care, cleaning, cooking, and laundry. In the workplace, employers would become more reluctant to place women in nonroutine jobs, where substitution of one worker for another is difficult.
So long as women are much more likely to take advantage of family-friendly workplace policies, and so long as those cost firms money, then those policies make it rational for firms to discriminate against women in hiring and promotion.
I’m not entirely on board with what Bergmann sees as the solution to this dilemma – government-funded childcare, paired with the end of paid parental leave. To be clear, I’d love universal childcare – I hope it exists by the time I need it. But I’m not sure I want to live in a world as stark as Bergmann and many of her colleagues imagine, where we stop looking for ways to support women with the perfectly reasonable desire to stay home for a few years with their kids.
That said, naming the Bergmann Effect trains us to look for a particular unintended consequence that might come with a lot of the policies that the women’s movement advocates for. It lets us think about whether these policies are worth their downside, and we can also look at ways to mitigate unintended consequences.
This brings me to last week. Kate, a guest poster over at Feministe, is furious, surprised and terrified (?) to see an ABC News segment asking whether the Pregnancy Discrimination Act could hurt women. Here’s the contrarian argument presented by Carrie Lukas, interviewed in the piece:
“I understand the desire for people to have the government step in and try to protect women, but there’s real costs to government intervention.” According to Carrie, those costs are that because there’s now a law, employers might worry about being sued if they break it, and therefore be hesitant to hire women.
Lukas isn’t my ideal spokesperson, as VP of the Independent Women’s Forum, a fundamentalist free-market think tank prone to bizarre press releases like Obama Transnationalist Agenda Undermines US Sovereignty.
But seriously, Kate, you don’t have to be a “self-loathing pregnant lady”, “anti-woman”, or “anti-feminist” to ask this question. It wouldn’t be easy to prove or prevent this sort of systematic discrimination. I’d like to think we’ll always ask the question, and in many cases decide that it’s worth the trade off. Let’s all take a deep breath.
According to the abstract of this new NBER working paper, women are 37 per cent less likely than men to get their BA in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). (I assume this is American data.) Only 25 per cent of jobs in STEM are held by women, but for now we’re focusing on that first statistic, which partly causes the second.
In any case, the paper looks at the impact of professor gender on female students’ performance, future course choices and chance of graduating with a STEM degree. They find that the gender gap in marks and majors disappears amongst female students with strong math skills when their intro courses are taught by other women.
Unless better STEM students are more likely to choose female professors – and I doubt it – that suggests that we could reduce the gender gap by making sure women teach more intro courses. (Of course, that would be tough on the few female profs in STEM departments, since almost no one prefers to teach the big intro courses.)
I’m a little skeptical of the “strong math skills” restriction – the authors are highlighting their strongest result, and presumably they couldn’t account for all of the gender gap amongst average students. We shouldn’t be discounting those women, any more than we do men with average math skills, since as we’ve discussed at length before, the only discernible gender differences in math ability are at the upper tail of the distribution. Not to mention the fact that many STEM majors and careers (medicine, anyone?) don’t require that much math.
Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.