Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Introducing the Feminist Economist in Me

A recently released British study has produced results that married men whose wives do not have jobs (and do all the housework) earn about 3% more than other men.**

As an economist, I believe the numbers…but the conclusion is all wrong. I do believe that there is a correlation between men with higher income and women who stay at home. But this study purports that one is the result of the other, when nearly all labor economists agree that household decisions about who brings home the bacon and who cooks it are simultaneously determined based on a number of factors.

This article is worded in such a way to suggest that if nothing changes in a marriage except the wife getting back into the kitchen, then a husband will earn more money. The message is this: Women, if you want your husbands to be successful you should be at home taking care of “women’s work” and letting your man do his “man’s work.” Even the title, “Married men earn more if wives do the chores,” suggests a cause and effect that actually works in the opposite direction.

A woman might agree to leave the labor force and take over household responsibilities if her husband makes much more money than she does. Or perhaps a woman chooses to remain in the work force because her husband does not earn enough to provide the family with the standard of living she desires. Or perhaps men who are very career-driven seek out a wife that is domestically driven. Or perhaps men who prefer domestic activities (and therefore carry more of the housework load) do not earn as much because they are more skilled at domestic work than market work. Are you getting the picture of “simultaneously determined”?

The author states that "A marriage might allow a husband and wife to focus their activities on tasks to which they are most suited. Traditionally, this would result in the man concentrating on paid work enabling him to increase productivity and in consequence his wages.” That idea originally comes from Gary S. Becker’s “A Theory of the Allocation of Time" which was published in 1965, just before the feminist movement got its footing. His theory suggests that families maximize their efficiency if the wife specializes entirely on household chores. Becker has since revised his argument to state that families are more efficient if one person does housework and one does paid work, and that the person doing paid work should be the one who is most efficient (i.e. higher wage) REGARDLESS OF GENDER. The argument that the author of the study makes that men are better at paid work is outdated, even by the admission of the father of the theory.

[As a side note, many theories have superseded Becker's because they account for individual happiness of the spouses rather than family efficiency. Labor economists have realized that families are not factories.]

As I said, I do believe the numbers themselves and the correlation they indicate between a man’s salary and his wife’s share of the domestic chores. However, it does not tell the entire story. I am currently working on a study to check the same correlation, but with the genders switched: Is a decrease in husband’s work hours correlated with an increase in wife’s salary? My work is in progress, but my preliminary results show that the answer is YES…if a husband works less hours, the wife makes more money.

Of course, this conclusion is subject to the same causation critique that I laid out about the British survey. But I mention my preliminary results not to suggest that men should leave the work force, but rather to point out that the gender of the working spouse is irrelevant to the ultimate conclusion of such time allocation studies.

To use the results of the British study to argue for a return of traditional gender roles and/or an exodus of women from the workforce is sexist and irresponsible. Numbers are objective, but economists interpreting numbers rarely are. It appears that these gentlement believe that women have smaller feet so that they can stand closer to the stove.

**As a disclaimer, I must report that I have not yet read the actual study. I am reacting to the article about the study only. I intend to read the study as soon as it becomes available, at which point I will update the post with any necessary revisions.


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