RADICAL AND liberal feminists, as defined by philosophers, differ on the extent to which the choices freely made by women are important. A liberal feminist wants maximum autonomy for women, demanding equal rights and an end to gender discrimination. A radical feminist sees patriarchal forces in society that are greater than any person and that oppress women in part by influencing their choices. Economic gender differences, such as the gender pay gap, are always a sign of injustice.
A new book by Claudia Goldin of Harvard University, an expert on women and work, is a study of both the choices American women make and the context in which they are made. “Career and Family: A Century’s Journey of Women to Equity” traces the work and family history of college-educated women and diagnoses what still troubles their careers today.
A caricature of the story might involve a trip from home to work. In fact, Ms. Goldin’s first generation of studies, born 1878-97, contained many working women. But a successful career usually required giving up children and sometimes marriage. Of those listed in “Notable American Women,” a collection of biographies, no more than three in ten had a child, she writes. The choice women faced was ‘family or career’.
In the third generation, those born between 1924 and 1943, women with a college education had a more uniform life experience: “family then work”. The typical woman worked after graduation, but soon married, had children, and dropped out of the workforce. She returned once her children were in school, and the gradual removal of discriminatory formal barriers opened up opportunities for her. But her prolonged absence from work meant she lacked the skills and experience to thrive in the workplace.
It is only through the fifth group, born after 1958, that many women aspire to have a “career and family”. The change was facilitated by the contraceptive pill, which helped women delay marriage; improved fertility treatments, which helped them delay childbearing; and more liberal social standards. Yet despite the staggering scale of change documented by Ms. Goldin, a clear gender gap still exists for these women, especially when it comes to pay. American women earn an average of 20% less per hour worked. For college graduates, the gap is larger, at 26%.
This is when the book becomes provocative. Drawing on a lot of research, Goldin says most women no longer experience much discrimination in the labor market in the sense of unequal pay for equal performance, as the left often claims. The pay gap between men and women is also not determined primarily by the professional choice of women, an explanation sometimes favored by the right. Even if the distribution of female occupations matched that of men – “if women were doctors and men were nurses” – she calculates that at most a third of the pay gap would disappear.
The most important cause is that women are cutting back their careers as part of a rational household response to labor markets, which generously rewards anyone, male or female, who is ready to take on what Ms. Goldin calls a “job. greedy ”. These are roles, like those in law, accounting and finance, that require long and unpredictable hours. Parents need someone to be on call at home in case a child gets sick and needs to be picked up from school, or needs encouragement at a concert or game of football. This is incompatible with greedy work, which requires being available for the last minute requests of a client or a boss. No one can do both. The rational answer is that one of the parents specializes in greedy and lucrative work, and the other, usually the mother, puts the children first. Ms. Goldin writes that “the couple’s equity has been and will continue to be abandoned to increase family income.”
A gender pay gap resulting mainly from household choices is a thorny issue for liberals who value freedom of choice. This is also difficult ground for economists, who often emphasize the “revealed preference” of those they study and the resulting efficiency of market outcomes. True to her membership in the Chicago school of conservative economists, Goldin does not offer confident prescriptions for government expansion that could easily have followed her convincing diagnosis of the problem. Parts of her book suggest that she is supporting more childcare grants, like those offered by President Joe Biden. But talk to The Economist she was more cautious, pointing out that among Mr Biden’s proposals, she would prioritize cash transfers to parents (a policy that does not seek to alter household choices). The book is about “what happened and why,” she says, rather than solutions.
For love or money
Another theme of the book, however, is how progress for women is the result of technological change and innovation. Could similar forces disrupt greed? For some jobs, it’s hard to see how; There is little that can stop the self-employed from spending hours in their business, say. But companies have an incentive to make jobs less greedy, because hiring and promoting mothers means tapping into a larger pool of talent. Ms. Goldin cites pharmacy as an example of an industry that has made the transition. Many pharmacists were previously self-employed, with customers expecting personalized service. But computers and consolidation have led pharmacists to become more substitutable for each other, making work less greedy without loss of status or salary. Maybe remote working or artificial intelligence will do the same for other professions.
Radically, Ms. Goldin identified a structural characteristic of the economy: “It’s not you, it’s the system,” she reassures the reader. But she has the reluctance of the Liberal to disrupt a system based on choice. ■
This article appeared in the Finance & economics section of the print edition under the title “The greedy-jobs gap”