Economic Woman

Econometrics, gender, equity and more.

Archive for September 2009

Women’s happiness, part one: Background

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We have a zombie meme on our hands, folks. Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers’ paper, The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, has been debated online since October 2007, and now it is back and stumbling among us, thanks this Huffington Post piece by Marcus Buckingham, a “leading expert in personal strengths and bestselling author.” (Is that a bio that inspires confidence, or what?) Stevenson and Wolfers’ paper is so obviously relevant to this blog that I am starting to feel silly for not weighing in. I realized that at its core, this debate is inspired by a knotty econometric problem, and there’s nothing I enjoy quite like a knotty econometric problem. So, this afternoon, I read the paper, and a good chunk of the commentary inspired by it.

I have to say, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the paper, if not all of the commentary. This post mostly summarizes a debate that took place online back in 2007, because I think it is worth understanding. I’ve mixed up some chronology because I assume you are more interested in content than timing. I will make later posts with some more original insights.

Just in case you’ve been living in a cave: Stevenson and Wolfers find that women’s happiness, in total and compared to men, has been declining steadily since the 1970s. Women, on average, used to be slightly happier than men, and now, on average, they are slightly less happy than men. (Slightly is a key word here, and we’ll return to that.) The researchers look at a few different studies, but most of their results are from the General Social Survey, based on a simple question about subjective well-being: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days, would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”

This is not a fluffy trend piece, though it has inspired a lot of fluffy trend pieces. I only have an undergraduate degree in economics, but I’ve read my fair share of econometric papers, in and out of class – I’m reasonably familiar with all the methods used in the paper – and Stevenson and Wolfers’ work does not look like statistical sleight-of-hand to me. The trend is real, but whether it is big enough to worry about is a more complicated question. Here is part of a blog post by Wolfers:

Let’s think of lining up all the men in 1972, in order of their happiness. In 1972, the median woman ranked between the 53rd and 54th man, happier than a slight majority of men.  By 2006, the median woman is somewhat less happy, ranking between the 48th and 49th man.

That does not sound like much. But his next point is a bit more convincing:

We know from prior studies that unemployment lowers average levels of happiness.  Comparing estimates across studies, we can say that the relative decline in women’s happiness that we document is equivalent to the decline in average happiness that would occur in a state if its unemployment rate rose by 8-1/2 percentage points (from, say, today’s 4-1/2% to 13%).

Another concern with the mainstream interpretation of this paper, stated best in this Language Log post (though note that other arguments in this post were later revised) is that the gap between the genders seems even smaller when you compare it to variations in happiness overall. In effect, the distributions of men’s happiness and women’s happiness overlap substantially. In statistical terms, Wolfers notes:

The relative decline in the happiness of women is roughly one-eighth of one standard deviation of the distribution of happiness in the population.  If you think there is a lot of variation in happiness in the population, this is big; if not, it is small.

I think that 1/8 of one standard deviation is pretty small whatever the standard deviation, frankly. Certainly this sort of substantial overlap is not what the Huffington Post et al imply, and that’s important. Language Log has some great suggestions on how to better describe this sort of research:

When we’re looking at some property P of two groups X and Y, and a study shows that the distribution of P in X is different from the distribution of P in Y to an extent that is unlikely to be entirely the result of chance, we should avoid explaining this to the general public by saying “X’s have more P than Y’s”, or “X’s and Y’s differ in P”, or any other form of expression that uses generic plurals to describe a generic difference. This would lead us to avoid statements like “men are happier than women. […] The reason? Most members of the general public don’t understand statistical-distribution talk, and instead tend to  interpret such statements as expressing general (and essential) properties of the groups involved.

It’s hard to abandon a sentence construction entirely. But there is no doubt that we can do a better job pointing out the subtleties of this sort of statistical analysis. I thought Steven Levitt summed up this debate the best, so I will let him have the last word:

Is this a monumental shift? Maybe not. But compared to how much other factors move happiness metrics, it is pretty large. [Stevenson and Wolfers] are quite honest about the magnitudes in the paper. To the extent their results are being exaggerated, it is by people like me who write blog posts about their paper without being explicit about the size of the effect. The authors can’t reasonably be blamed for that.

Now that we’ve covered some of what the paper actually says, I’m going to move on to what it does not say. Stay tuned for the next post in this series.

Written by Allison

23 September 2009 at 12:39 am

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Demographers on family policy in Germany

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Commenting on Doug Saunders’ article, discussed here earlier this week, Randy McDonald at Demography Matters compares Germany’s family policies to those in France. He concludes that if women are not given the opportunity to pursue both education/career and childbearing, large numbers of them will opt not to have children.

This growing body of research points towards a strong conclusion: if a developed country, or at least a country well advanced in the demographic transition, wants high cohort fertility, it has to support alternative family structures in such a way that women will have the autonomy necessary to combine participation in the work force with motherhood. Times have changed, and if any number of countries–Germany included–are to avoid very prolonged demographic winters they’re going to have to adapt.

I don’t know how much I care about ensuring population growth. I know that population decline has serious economic consequences, but I still came of age as an environmentalist. But I do think we should err towards policies that give women the greatest number of choices.

Demography Matters looks interesting throughout if you’re interested in fertility rates, demographic change, gender imbalances, etc.

(H/t to @DougSaunders.)

Written by Allison

19 September 2009 at 1:19 pm

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Give your daughter an edge: Name her Cameron

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Female lawyers with names perceived as more masculine have a better shot at judgeships, according to Bentley Coffeey of Clemson University and Patrick McLaughlin of George Mason University. The study [gated], based on data from South Carolina, was written up in the Vancouver Sun in August, and has circulated widely since then.

In the American Law and Economics Review, Coffey and his co-authors report that changing a woman’s name from something feminine, such as Sue, to a gender-neutral name, such as Kelly, increases her odds of being appointed a judge by five per cent. A predominantly male name, such as Cameron, triples the odds of becoming a judge. And a swap from Sue to Bruce, a name used almost exclusively for men, increases the odds of judgeship by a factor of five.

According to Canwest, a later study controls for debt on graduation and experience, and still finds a significant effect. I can’t locate that paper, though – perhaps it’s still unpublished? Those controls are important, obviously, since given names vary between classes.

What is the mechanism here? Is there some immediate positive feeling we get from assuming that someone is male, in the brief period before our first impression is corrected? I can’t think of another explanation. This is interesting, because law is a field where women have made a lot of progress. We’re supposed to believe that women – who are well represented in the legal profession – don’t make it to the highest echelons in large numbers because they drop out to have children. But clearly, that is not all that is going on.

This is nothing new, of course. Commenter Victoria Pynchon at Legal Blog Watch points out that blind auditions increase the number of women in symphonies. This study [gated] of academic hiring found that men and women were both, on average, biased in favour of male applicants. Of course, we cannot assume that unconscious (or conscious!) bias comes into play in every situation. This paper on blind marking for UK A-level exams [gated] finds no effect.

If I can be forgiven for broad application of these fairly narrow results, I there is an argument here for gender blind hiring. Reviewing a resume without knowing the applicant’s gender might seem pointless since gender will (generally) be pretty obvious at the interview. But if that brief period of impartiality is what is giving these South Carolina judges an advantage, maybe it’s worth the hassle.

(H/t to Marginal Revolution and TaxProf Blog)

Written by Allison

18 September 2009 at 11:49 am

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Job Voyager: Watch women’s voyage into the labour market

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This Flash visualization shows the proportion of the US working population in different occupation categories from 1850-2000. A screen capture cannot do this project justice, so you should click over to the Job Voyager itself. There you can hover over the Flash visualization to locate smaller occupations, and see the gender split for different time periods. You can switch from data for women to data for men and the full population. And you can also search for particular occupations, and look at that data alone.

The “manager/owner” slice has grown noticeably since 1970, reflecting, I assume, the rise of female entrepreneurship.


Just the magnitude of gender segregations is striking when you see it graphically. For classic cases, look at secretaries and carpenters:

image image

We can see women making real progress in some professional careers – but when you look at the labour market as a whole, these high pay and high respect jobs are so tiny you can’t locate them without carefully hovering over the graph. Most women, most men for that matter, do not have access to these high reward occupations.


But this graph isn’t the coolest part – Flare is a library for building Flash data visualizations. That means that you can build your own.

(H/t to Chris Blattman, lately my favourite blogger.)

Written by Allison

17 September 2009 at 4:13 pm

In Germany, mothers struggle to return to the workforce

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The Globe has been running some impressive coverage in its World section lately, branching out into cultural issues as well as hard news from abroad. One case in point is Doug Saunders’ piece about working women in Germany.

It turns out – and this is news to me – that Germany has lagged way behind the rest of Western Europe in integrating mothers into the workforce. Working with children is both financially difficult, with childcare expensive and rare, and socially unacceptable for married women.

The ideology itself was Ms. Hoffritz’s biggest barrier. When she talked about her frustrations, her friends and relatives openly denounced her as a rabenmutter – literally “raven mother,” a woman who abandons her children, like the mythic ravens throwing their chicks from the nest. It is a term routinely applied to working mothers in Germany.

Rather than focusing exclusively on policy, Saunders takes a broader view, tracing attitudes about working mothers back to the Cold War. It’s an interesting angle, though I’d like to hear more about women in what was East Germany, since at least pre-unification they would have been expected to work. Have attitudes changed on that side of the wall, or is this article mostly relevant in the West? I’m also interested in differences in workplace participation and childcare across classes – do they follow the same patterns as, say, Canada 30 years ago?

In any case, the article is thoughtful, and well worth reading.

Written by Allison

13 September 2009 at 1:47 pm

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