Friday, April 10, 2015

The Power of Working Moms

In the week’s WAPPP seminar “It Takes a Family and a Country,” Harvard Business School Professor Kathleen McGinn spoke on the importance of role models, both within the home and on the country level, and how they affect economic outcomes – and welfare outcomes more broadly – of both women and men.

McGinn started by asking a seemingly simple question: What drives outcomes between men and women? In developed countries, women on average are more educated than men, so a traditional understanding of learning or education doesn’t explain the advantage men hold over women in many areas. McGinn and her coauthors, Mayra Ruiz Castro also of HBS and Babson College, and Elizabeth Long Lingo of Mount Holyoke College, looked instead at learning in the home and from famous national figures, or what they refer to as the “role model effect.”

Their research question was “Are non-traditional gender role models in families and in societies related to national, organizational, and individual differences in (1) employment, (2) supervisory responsibility, (3) earnings, (4) allocation of household work and (5) caring for family members?

Studying this effect across 25 countries, McGinn et al used survey data from 2002 and 2012 to see changes in attitudes and outcomes over time. The data suggests that gender inequality has shrunk over the past decade, though unevenly. Women still do more work at home than men do across countries, though in more developed countries, there is less time in aggregate spent on household duties due to technological advances. Gender attitudes have also gotten more liberal over time, which counters recent research that suggests they're stagnating.
What happens when your role model at home is also a
country-level role model?
To measure the effects of gender inequality and its variations within country, McGinn et al defined role models on the micro and macro level. The study described role models at home as working mothers, defined as mothers who ever got paid for work outside the home before the respondent was 14 years old. To measure country-level role models, the study also looked at the average proportion of female parliamentarians in a respondent’s country before he or she turned 14. The focus on role models was critical because they shape what people see as appropriate behavior via exposure. Results indicated that this was especially true for role models within the family.

(1) Employment: The effect of being raised by a working mother is significant for women only. Likewise, the proportion of female parliamentarians during childhood increases women’s likelihood of employment but has no effect on men's employment.

(2) Supervisory roles: Women are generally less likely to hold supervisory positions across countries. There was no supervisory effect of having a working mother for men, but having a working mother had a significant and increasing effect for women. The effect of female parliamentarians is negative for women holding supervisory roles, though McGinn and her coauthors are still trying to understand why.

(3) Earnings: Being raised by a working mother had no effect on men’s relative incomes, while women’s incomes were higher for those raised by a working mother. This effect was mitigated by gender attitudes, however. Perhaps surprisingly, growing up during an era with a relatively large proportion of women in parliament dampens wages, and this effect is more pronounced for men.

(4) Allocation of household work: McGinn emphasized that gender inequality in the public sphere is affected by gender inequality at home, though the cycle flows both ways. Earlier research assumed that households acted as single units with shared preferences, but more recent research has acknowledged and accounted for individual preferences within households. Being raised by a working mother decreases women’s hours and increases men’s hours spent on household work, and growing up during an era with relatively large proportion of women in parliament had the same effects.

(5) Caring for family members: Being raised by a working mom increases both men and women’s role with children, and gender attitudes have no effect. A higher proportion of female parliamentarians increased just men's time spent caring for family members.

In short, having a mother who worked outside the home improved women’s outcomes in the workplace and increased men’s participation in household work. As McGinn put it, "There are few magic pills that have proven to reduce gender inequality in all of these public and private spheres, but being raised by a working mother comes close."

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