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  • Goldin’s fondness for child-care subsidies creates underexplored issues. Like her insistence on “couple equity,” it shortchanges stay-at-home parents. Tweet This
  • Goldin neglects the possibility that men and women might simply be different, on average, in ways related to these preferences—which could partly explain why the two sexes, even today, do not make the same tradeoffs between career and family. Tweet This
Category: Women, Work-Family

Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity, the latest work from the celebrated economic historian Claudia Goldin, documents women’s advance in the work force—with a focus on college graduates. It’s a must-read for those who care about gender gaps, though some readers will disagree with Goldin’s recommendations for further change.

Most of the book is spent chronicling the 20th-century progress of college-graduate women. This demographic has evolved greatly as social mores and technology have shifted, and as college attendance itself has become far more common. Goldin divides these women into five capital-G “Groups” and describes in detail how they fared in both family and career life.

Group 1, which graduated college in the first two decades of the 20th century, tended to have either a career or a family, but few managed to have both. The women of Group 2, who graduated from about 1920 through 1945, tended to have jobs (not necessarily careers) that they then left to start families. Group 3, with graduation dates through the mid-1960s, started families soon after college but then got jobs after the kids got old enough. Group 4 got their careers established before starting families, while Group 5, those who graduated in the last two decades of the 20th century, have tried to manage careers and families simultaneously.

Obviously, these are very broad generalizations with countless exceptions, and on some level it’s hard to compare a female college grad from 1910 with one from 1990 at all. But Goldin does a compelling job of running through the historical data, providing the surrounding cultural context, and explaining how technological and legal changes affected women over the years. Readers learn about how many jobs once excluded married women, about how equal-pay statutes and discrimination lawsuits won the day, and about how the Pill and household-labor-saving technologies revolutionized domestic life.

Of course, many readers will be most concerned not about the past, but about the present and future, which Goldin addresses in the book’s earliest and latest chapters. There remain big differences between the work outcomes of men and women, even among college grads. The question is where the differences come from and what, if anything, we should do about them.

As Goldin lays out, the explanations probably aren’t what you think. There is some sexist discrimination from employers, but it doesn’t seem to drive the overall statistical patterns very much. Women do tend to cluster somewhat in lower-paid occupations, but even this explains only about a third of the difference.

The big culprit is kids. Men and women fresh out of school tend to earn pretty similar amounts, but as kids arrive, women are more likely to scale back their hours, switch into more flexible but lower-paid roles, or leave the work force entirely, while men keep working and climbing the ladder.

An important contributor to this pattern—especially among the higher-educated folks who are Goldin’s focus—are “greedy” jobs that pay a lot but make extreme demands on employees’ time: lawyer, surgeon, consultant, etc. In these areas, employers often value one employee working 70 hours a week a lot more than two employees working 35. The former person will always be available to meet with a client, will have attended all the meetings about the big project, and so on and so forth.

Further, in these fields, the competition between kids and work can be especially brutal if, say, making partner or getting tenure happens around the same time that women’s fertility declines. And these jobs heavily penalize those who take extended absences from work.

Thus, many couples will find that they can make more by having one person work a highly demanding job like this while the other opts for flexibility. The member of the couple who ends up in the more flexible but lower-paid position, of course, is more likely to be the woman.

Not all fields force such tradeoffs, however. Veterinarians and pharmacists are important exceptions that Goldin discusses in depth. You don’t go to the pharmacy expecting a specific person to put your pills in the bottle, and while you might like your vet, you accept that you’ll have to work around their schedule and deal with someone else in an off-hours emergency. If a pharmacist or vet works twice as many hours, he or she will earn twice as much money, but not drastically more than twice as much.

These occupations are heavily female, with small male/female gaps in hourly pay, because they allow workers to put their skills to use for a reasonable number of hours without losing a big pay bump that’s reserved to workaholics. And if both members of a couple work in one of these occupations, they can both scale back their work somewhat to spend more time with the kids, rather than one person stepping back while the other surges ahead.

There are numerous ways to look at the current situation. Given that legal barriers and even private discrimination seem mostly behind us, one might simply shrug—especially as it pertains to college graduates, who obviously have relatively comfortable lives, on average, no matter what jobs they choose.

Some employers want employees to work long hours, and they pay enough to attract employees willing to do that; other jobs attract workers through flexibility. Each couple decides for itself which of the available jobs to take and how to divide labor within the household. As preferences change and couples sort out which divisions of labor they find acceptable, companies will naturally be forced to adjust. Goldin documents how, in some fields, companies are already offering more flexible arrangements as dads want to spend more time at home.

Supply, meet demand. Just let the free market do its thing, and if different people make different decisions, so what?

Goldin, though, has a goal of creating “equity” in work arrangements—and she doesn’t mean an equitable division of labor where, depending on the situation, one partner might work more at home while the other puts in longer hours at a paid job. Rather, she envisions men and women doing comparable amounts of both paid and household work. As she notes, this is unlikely to happen at the aggregate level unless it happens at the level of individual couples too, because when couples find it valuable to have one workaholic and one parent more focused on the kids, men and women disproportionately fall into those roles (respectively).

How do we get what Goldin calls “couple equity”? Goldin endorses some of the usual suspects here, writing fondly about the more enlightened countries that “greatly subsidize childcare.” More interestingly, she wants to “change how work is structured” so that it’s more flexible and pharmacist-like for everyone, with employees better able to substitute for each other so no one has to work 24/7—though she’s cagey as to whether this must continue to happen organically and voluntarily (in which case hardly anyone could object) or instead should be spurred by government policy.

Of course, government efforts to promote gender equity are hardly controversial among left-of-center, college-educated Americans. Yet there are some troubling implications of Goldin’s analysis that she does not flesh out.

To insist on “couple equity” is to rule out stay-at-home parenting and to disregard the actual preferences of American women and men. Lots of women want to be stay-at-home moms or to work part-time—and some dads do, too. (For the record, I recently spent more than a year and a half at home full-time with my three kids and working on the side, while my wife continued full-time work.) There is absolutely nothing wrong with a couple that specializes, with each partner taking on different responsibilities so that the household can run in a more efficient way.

Goldin also neglects the possibility that men and women might simply be different, on average, in ways related to these preferences—which could partly explain why the two sexes, even today, do not make the same tradeoffs between career and family. To the contrary, Goldin flatly asserts that “gender norms are at the root of why women take the more flexible and predictable jobs,” and she seems to take it as a given that we should want to eliminate or at least reduce this gap. (Interestingly, she doesn't have this blind spot when it comes to boys lagging in school: "It may have to do with what’s going on in your cells and this difference between this Y and this double X," she mused to Tyler Cowen last week.)

To be absolutely clear, gender roles can change: this book documents how they have changed, in big ways. But perhaps they are not infinitely malleable, given the sex differences in parenting behaviors we see in various species throughout nature and in every human society (yes, even the Nordics). I know we’re all scared to death of being James Damore-d, but it’s odd for an entire book about sex differences in childrearing to avoid questions of biology so studiously.

Goldin’s fondness for child-care subsidies creates underexplored issues as well. Like her insistence on “couple equity,” it shortchanges stay-at-home parents: Child-care subsidies not only neglect such parents, but discourage their very existence. A natural benefit of staying home is that you don’t have to pay someone else to watch your kids, but when the government stands ready to pay for child care, this benefit disappears. Instead of saving money by doing the work yourself, you give up big subsidies and still do the work.

Goldin also notes, in an apparent celebration of the triumph of modern mores, that Americans’ belief that preschool kids “suffer” if their moms work has declined across generations, (according to her analysis of the General Social Survey). Putting aside the sexism of the question being about mothers specifically, the problem is that there is actually a lively, ongoing academic debate over whether day care is bad for kids. I was rather surprised by Goldin’s neglect of this research. In this book, a desire to keep kids out of day care is simply an obstacle to gender equity, not a genuine preference that deserves respect and even has some empirical support.

In Career and Family, Goldin expertly lays out the history of college-grad women’s advances in the work force, and she carefully dissects where the remaining gender gap originates. Her policy recommendations, though, deserve some healthy scrutiny and pushback.

Robert VerBruggen is an IFS research fellow and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.