Economic Woman

Econometrics, gender, equity and more.

The Bergmann Effect

with 4 comments

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:

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.

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.


Written by Allison

16 May 2009 at 2:06 pm

4 Responses

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  1. An alternative also being to encourage men to take advantage of the “family-friendly” workplace practices that are adopted/available


    18 May 2009 at 2:29 pm

  2. Interesting post. But I feel it goes off the rails at the end when defending the propaganda of the IWF.

    The question the IWF’s Lukas poses is ludicrous on its face and quite deserving of ridicule. Its premise is that businesses will break a law against discrimination in hiring in order to avoid a risk of being sued for potentially breaking another law.

    P. M. Bryant

    24 May 2009 at 3:57 pm

  3. […] It’s not anti-feminist to ask about the Bergmann effect (even when an anti-feminist is doing the asking) […]

  4. P.M. Bryant,

    I think you underestimate how difficult it is to prove discrimination in hiring, particularly for white-collar jobs. In particular, if the concern is about women’s taking time off for pregnancy, the discrimination won’t be against all women as a class, but specifically against women in their mid-20s to early 30s, who are perceived as likely to become pregnant in the near future. A woman who did all her procreating in her early 20s and is now 40 with kids who are old enough to be relatively self-sufficient isn’t going to be discriminated against.

    It’s a lot easier to prove that an employer hasn’t followed a law requiring him to give pregnancy leave than it is to prove that he is engaging in sex discriminatory hiring. Just think through the proof process for each of those before assuming that Lukas’s question is “ludicrous on its face.”


    26 May 2009 at 10:06 am

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