My senior year of college, in my feminist economics class, we read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, a book which is ultimately written from a privileged perspective, but which raises important points about women in the workplace. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I’ll run through a couple of points right here:
- Because women who negotiate for higher salaries are often seen as pushy or cold, women may have to trade off between income and social capital needed to do their jobs; this in turn may contribute to the pay gap
- Also contributing to the pay gap? The fact that women who anticipate staying home or taking it easier when they have kids don’t necessarily go for promotions or take on bigger projects earlier on, they often make less, and are making less than they might be when they make choices about parenting
- Staying home even for a few years erodes the value and relevance of skills, which means that the longer women stay home, the more their skills depreciate; this means that a) when they go back, they make less, contributing to the aforementioned pay gap, and b) women may choose not to go back if they don’t feel it’s worth it
The book talks about a lot more than those three points-~-it examines issues like gender disparities in corporate leadership, the role of mentorship, and several other related issues, and if you can set aside the fact that Sandberg’s perspective won’t apply to everyone, it begins to ask a lot of questions that feminists need to think about. I want to talk about some of those questions here, and I particularly want to talk about something related to that second bullet point.
A friend of mine recently pointed out that, as much as he wanted to see more women in competitive fields, he understood the logic behind many firms’ hiring decisions: for industries which require a certain investment on the part of the firm, training and investing in women who will ultimately leave doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue since this friend mentioned it, and I think there’s an issue at play here that has been under-discussed: opportunity cost.
Looking at those bullet points, one starts to see opportunity cost as a factor contributing to women’s employment decisions, one that can have a significant impact on labor force participation and income alike. If we’re wondering why more women leave the field, maybe we should consider some of the broader economic factors that influence decisions made within households. Female-dominated fields make less than male-dominated fields across the board-~-these are things like teaching, social work, nursing, elder care, and customer service, as opposed to fields like law, engineering, medicine, and finance-~-and make less than men, in general, across all fields. This value gap has helped to contribute to the relative segregation of some of these fields-~-that is, in a society that doesn’t value care labor and therefore compensates those who perform care labor less than than those who provide services like accounting or legal advice, where men are socialized to believe that they need to be breadwinners or that salary defines success, men are pushed towards fields which pay more. It’s not an issue of discrimination against men, but an issue of how we value certain roles in our society. But that value gap has another consequence, combined with the pay gap: women are, in general, making less than men.
We know that, of course, but there’s another implication to consider, besides just the immediate issue of women making less. When families make decisions, economists would like to think that they do so such that the best decision for the family is made. Different family models explain this differently, but I want everyone to consider who takes unpaid parental leave, who is more likely to stay home with children when they are young, who is more likely to be a stay-at-home parent in general: women. The reason isn’t just that women face social pressure to be heavily involved with their children; it’s not that women are inherently more nurturing than men, because that’s not necessarily true. A part of the problem is opportunity cost: the family has more to lose if the primary breadwinner stays home, and because of the value gap and the pay gap, the primary breadwinner is more often than not the man.
What does this have to do with hiring practices? Potentially a lot. If employers were to give women the same kinds of hiring, project management, and promotional opportunities that many men access, then the opportunity cost of a woman staying home when she has children, or leaning back in her career, would increase. Women may well prove worth the investment if they are given the chance, because at the end of the day, families are going to make household economic decisions that make sense to them, and having someone who is bringing in a significant amount of money will make less sense. It’s easy, in a couple comprised of a banker and a social worker, to say it makes sense for the social worker to stay home. But what feminism is and must be advocating for, is more female bankers, more male social workers, and a greater appreciation for the value that social workers provide. There’s no reason why women can’t make more-~-in fact, female breadwinners are becoming more common.
Changing the decision-making calculus for women and families will ultimately help change what the labor force looks like long term. If we give women the opportunity, the opportunity cost may well make staying in the workplace worth their while…and worth their companies’ investments.