“We have to raise our voices to demand that women get paid fairly.”
This is what President Obama has been relentlessly asking his fellow Americans to do as a country to help women succeed. In the US women who work full-time still earn just 78 cents for every dollar that men earn. That’s why President Obama supported the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would help women fight for the equal pay they deserve.
In John Stuart Mill’s “The Subjection of Women”, Mill said men and women were indeed different, but he saw the achievements of women as dependent on incentives and the work environment, which he thought could be improved beyond what most people in his day — and perhaps ours, too — could easily imagine.
It was a 19th-century essay. Since then many authors have written about the economic gender gap, and things have changed considerably, but still women participate less in many public settings, especially those in which real power is exercised.
Two recent new books offer an economic look at the evidence, giving support to both pessimistic and optimistic perspectives on the direction of gender relations and the prospects for more fairness and equality.
The first book, “Why Gender Matters in Economics” (Princeton University Press, 2014) by Mukesh Eswaran, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia, draws on data from past economic studies conducted under laboratory conditions to show how gender influences financial actions and relationships. In sum, the author suggests that women are perceived as easier to take advantage of in a variety of economic settings. That’s a bad news, and it comes from measuring a difference in gender behavior at a specific point in time.
However, when we consider changes over time, there is cause for optimism. We find a more positive evidence in the second new book, “The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation and Institutions” (Princeton University Press, 2014) by Christopher F. Karpowitz, professor of political science at Brigham Young University, and Tali Mendelberg, professor of politics at Princeton. The authors show that once women achieve a critical mass in a particular area, their participation grows rapidly, at least after basic norms of inclusion have been established. They show how incentives matter, and that incentives can be changed, and how a fairer social environment can give people greater reason to choose better behavior, especially in the long term. For instance, over time, men behave in a less stereotypically male way when more women are participating in an organization or an activity.
The main driver of the change appears to be that more and more women are making great strides in the areas of law, medicine and academia. And this process may spread to other sectors of the economy as well, such as technology industries.
It is a long-term optimistic perspective. As Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University reminds us on the pages of the New York Times, gender gap will eventually close. These days, the gap between the top men and women in the work place still exists, but is narrowing in the United States. If it is true that the Americans are always far ahead, the bigger picture is supporting optimism about a better world to come.