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Women’s Economic Progress and the Legacy of Patriarchy

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 The contributor to The Economist under the label “Free Exchange” provided an interesting column on the economic progress women have made: Do “greedy jobs” cause the gender pay gap?  The author discusses the conclusions provided in a recent book.

“A new book by Claudia Goldin of Harvard University, an expert on women and work, is a study both of American women’s choices and of the context in which they are made. “Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity” traces the history of work and family for college-educated women, and diagnoses what still troubles their careers today.”

Goldin is said to provide a standard description of the evolution over time of working women from single women working in female specific jobs, to unmarried women gaining advanced education and access to traditionally male positions until marriage, to women trying to combine both careers and family.  All the while, the women would be underpaid for their efforts.

“Yet, despite the staggering extent of the change Ms Goldin documents, a clear gender gap still exists for these women, most notably with respect to pay. American women earn on average 20% less per hour worked. For college graduates, the gap is larger, at 26%.”

“It is at this point that the book becomes provocative. Drawing on reams of research Ms Goldin argues that most women no longer suffer much labour-market discrimination in the sense of unequal pay for equal performance, as is often claimed by the left. Nor is the gender pay gap driven primarily by women’s choice of occupation, an explanation sometimes favoured by the right.”

“The most important cause is that women curtail their careers as a part of a rational household response to labour markets, which generously reward anyone, male or female, who is willing to hold down what Ms Goldin calls a “greedy job”. These are roles, such as those in law, accountancy and finance, that demand long and unpredictable hours. Parents need somebody to be on-call at home in case a child falls ill and needs picking up from school, or needs cheering on at a concert or football match. That is incompatible with a greedy job, which requires being available for last-minute demands from a client or boss. No one person can do both. The rational response is for one parent to specialise in lucrative greedy work, and for the other—typically the mother—to prioritise the children. Ms Goldin writes that ‘couple equity has been, and will continue to be, jettisoned for increased family income’.”

This conclusion pertaining to women’s progress requires comment, not because it is incorrect, but because it demonstrates so much that yet needs to change.  First of all, why do we even have these “greedy” jobs?  The author states “those in law, accountancy and finance, that demand long and unpredictable hours.”  These occupations do not demand long and unpredictable hours, it is their social cultures that have developed these conditions.  They all involve interacting with money or people who have money—lots of it.  If money is to flow or be protected, a system has been set up whereby these people must be dealt with.  They are not unlike the gangs of crooks who would take control of a river or highway and demand a fee for passage in days of old.  They seem so ashamed of the fact that they contribute so little yet make so much money that they create this myth that what they do requires such extreme intelligence and hard work that only a few of the “elite” can possibly succeed.  Part of the support for this myth is claiming that a woman raising children and needing well-defined working hours—usually with a husband who is nearly useless—can’t compete.  It is all a scam of epic proportions that needs to collapse.

In Are Men Becoming the Second Sex?, it was noted that women compete quite well with men in education where success demands “long and unpredictable hours” and can be measured quantitatively.  Women have long out-competed men for college bachelor degrees and now produce most of the advanced masters and doctoral degrees.  Women are taking control of the cadre of young medical doctors and have begun to surpass men in law degrees.  Where they are less likely to succeed are in activities that are controlled by cultural factors such as politics and the high-income aristocracy where patriarchal attitudes remain dominant.

There are many men, often with significant power and influence, who do not wish to compete with women.  They are much more comfortable relegating them to household chores, an attitude that has thousands of years of cultural/religious support.  Is there a better way to drive women out of the workforce than to deny them any support when they inevitably get pregnant and must stop work and attend to the newborn?  After a few months, the mother and infant have bonded, and the infant can just as well be cared for by the father.  In fact, the infant and family would be in better shape if the father took the time to form a strong bond with the child as well.  If one believes that men and women have equivalent cognitive capabilities on average, why is the default solution that the mother should drop her career so the father can maximize family income.  Why is that not a decision reached on the basis of each parent’s capabilities and prospects.  The idea that women should focus on childcaring is a social construct imposed by tradition.  Tradition can be changed.

The Nordic countries were never much influenced by Christian traditions.  Consequently, they seem to be the firmest believers in equality of opportunity for women.  In Scandinavia and Gender Equality Sweden was used as an example of the extent to which a society can go to provide gender equality.  The Swedish government’s goal is thusly defined. 

“The aim of Sweden’s gender equality policies is to ensure that women and men enjoy the same opportunities, rights and obligations in all areas of life.”

Note the inclusion of the phrase “equality of obligations.”  Sweden interprets this to mean that women must not bear the only burden of raising a child.  When a woman has a baby, she is not offered maternal leave, but a very generous family leave of over a year in extent.  This leave can be taken as needed over the first several years of the child’s life.  The reason for calling this family leave is because it is designed to balance the time a mother will spend away from work with the requirement that the father also miss work—a minimum of two months—and spend time providing the childcare.  The policy is aimed at fairness in sharing obligations and intends to protect any new mother from having to leave the workforce unless she wishes to do so.

Patriarchy is a tradition that needs to die.


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