Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Economics of Household Labor and Pay Differences between Sexes

The Economist recently published a summary of recent study on division of household labor which reinforces a lot of what we already know.  The previous studies that it references are worth mentioning, and some of the other conclusions that it draws are probably new. Even in a developed country like America, women spend three times the time doing housework on an average day as men. The traditional economic explanation of this has been that since an average American woman earns 20% less than a man, the family earnings would be maximized if the lesser paid partner did the unpaid work at home.  There is some evidence to support this hypothesis. Women who earn more do less work at home. The recent study, however, has found alternate explanations for division of labor. It suggests that how much housework an average man does is proportional to how much he likes to do it.  For a man the time he spends on housework is not correlated to how his income compares to the average. For a woman unfortunately, her preferences play no role in the time she spends on household work.

On the question of the pay gap, you always wonder whether it is the cause or the effect. Do women do more housework because they earn less or do they earn less because spend more time and effort in managing the house (and consequently less time on activities that build value). That an equally educated woman earns less over her lifetime than a man is a reality true even for those with the best qualifications, and part of the explanation is logical. A women takes more breaks from her career, whether to support her spouse or to raise children. In fact, way back in 2005, I came across a study of female graduates of Harvard which found that as many as 40% of them took time off at some point in their lives. The post is here.

In 2009, New York Times reported a study done by Payscale. It found that adjusted for the type of jobs taken up by a female, industry, type of company and other factors, at least for jobs earnings less than $100,000 an year, the 20% pay gap between men and women disappeared. So the difference can be explained by career choices than discrimination, except at higher salaries.

This has always been an area of interest and the relevant sources are documented below. I have always believed that - if you control for other factors - how gender roles were played and household labor was split between parents is significant determinant of how much responsibility a man takes at home. One day, hopefully, I will find a study that explores that.

1) 2012: The economist article, “The ironing lady”, is here.
2) 2012: The Research Paper, “The Role of Preferences and Opportunity Costs in Determining the Time Allocated to Housework”, is here.
3) 2009: The New York Times article, “Women Earn Less than Men, Especially at the Top,” is here.
4) 2004: My own post, “Work, Family, Personal Life: Why Not All Three,” about the conference and study at HBS is here.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Life Changers - Finding meaning through Amy

As I look back, whenever I thought I was struggling (professionally or personally) in life is when I have done the most meaningful work. This post is meant to be a part of the series of reminisces of those time periods.
A few years ago, I was involved with an organization dedicated to the cause of the domestic violence victims in the tri-state (New York - New Jersey - Connecticut) area.  Let’s call it – ‘Life-Changer’. Life-Changer is very particular about confidentiality to ensure the safety of their clients and people who work with them, their staff and especially volunteers.  It office location and shelter addresses are secret. It doesn’t give references to its volunteers. It also avoided social media presence and web activism till recently.

Apart from the fact that women’s causes naturally resonate, a big reason I joined Life-Changer was guilt. I regret not doing enough for someone very close who went through a tough situation in her life. But as I look back I realize that the work I did gave me a sense of purpose to anchor my own life. Apart from helping with their outreach, marketing and activism, I worked closely with few of Life-Changer’s clients. This portion of my work was the most rewarding.

On my first such case I advocated for Amy (by now you know that’s not her name). Amy married someone from her own country and moved to the United States with him.  She needed to get a US passport for her recently born baby. The Life-Changer staff member who was working with me had told me the details of the case. Amy had been here for less than a year. Like many women who move with their husbands, Amy wasn’t eligible to work, and had no source of income.

I met Amy at the steps of the court-house. This was her third visit. Passport application for a child needs to be signed by both parents. Only problem was that Amy’s husband deserted her before the child was born and Amy had no idea where he was.  We said hello and talked a bit using signs. Amy spoke little English. This was a woman living alone with a newborn baby in a shelter. Amy was in a country different from her own; she was not very fluent with the language and had almost no support structure. For someone going through all this Amy was really strong. I was worried earlier, but I realized apart from the language, Amy didn’t need me much.

We went in the court. I did my part – filled up the baby’s papers, presented them to the officer and just before she was about to put the rejected stamp on our application - told her Amy’s story, mentioned the relevant exception to the law and presented the documentary evidence. She was sympathetic and filled an additional document to expedite the case while we were standing at the window and the others were waiting. I thought she must have seen many such cases before.

Amy was happy when we came out of the court.  She understood that her application was accepted because the officer hadn’t given it back to her. I tried to tell her that she should get her son’s passport in week to ten days.  I wanted to walk with to her public transport location and make sure she could take the right route to the shelter. She politely refused. As we said good-bye she hugged me. I watched her go. Amy was ready, to take the world on her own. She would be first of the many women who I will learn from.

Now that I am in a different geography, not actively involved I think I can actually use the real name instead of Life-Changer. I should think about that.

Book Update :  After my recent tryst with psychology and history am back to fiction. Read, 'A Walk Across the Sun' and 'The Girl Who Played with Fire'.