The long and still incomplete rise of women towards equality in the world of work was not what we thought until an exceptional economist shed more light on it. The latter taught us, among other things, that the issue of work-family balance is not new.
Until then, economists believed that the increase in women’s participation in the labor market had gone hand in hand with economic growth in developed countries. But this is generally because they did not look further than the turn of the 20th century.e century due, in particular, to the lack of reliable statistical data, Claudia Goldin once realized, who was awarded, last week, the “Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel ”, more commonly known as the “Nobel Prize in Economics”.
It was by carrying out real detective work in dusty archives that the American economist established that before this time, when women presented themselves simply as “wives” in the censuses, they often omitted to add that they worked, in the same capacity as their husbands, on farm work or other family economic activities. In fact, during the strong period of economic growth from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the present, the presence of women in the labor market has not gradually increased. It rather followed a U-shaped trajectory, starting, for example, in the population of white married women in the United States, from a participation rate approaching 60% before plummeting throughout the 19th century.e century up to only 5%, then regaining all the ground lost during the 20the century.
Tumble and difficult climb back up
The great slide of the 19th centurye century was notably caused by the shift of work from the home to factories where one could no longer take care of children and household chores at the same time, forcing women to stay at home and leaving the husband to be the alone in having a paid economic activity.
Technological progress which reduced the burden of domestic work (running water, electrification, household appliances, etc.), the democratization of education and the growth of the service sector would help to reverse the trend, but only very slowly. This is because it was also necessary to get rid of corporate rules and even certain laws which had come to oppose the work of married women. And even once these rules were abolished, unfavorable prejudices against the female workforce remained for a long time, showed the economist, to whom we owe, among other things, the idea that candidates for positions of musicians in orchestras do their auditions behind curtains.
Claudia Goldin herself was the first woman to win a full professorship in Harvard’s Department of Economics in 1990. She is also only the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics since its creation in 1969 and the first sole winner after Elinor Ostrom (2009) and Esther Duflo (2019) both received it alongside male colleagues.
Another major technological innovation was the invention of the contraceptive pill, which would allow women to choose when they would marry and have children, and thus open up the prospect of longer studies and richer careers. . But again, it is because it also came with a proliferation of social, political and legal advances at the same time, such as laws prohibiting wage discrimination, the legalization of abortion and the entry of women in the largest universities, that the pill has had this effect on the job market.
It’s also because women’s expectations had evolved, explained Claudia Goldin, whose observations about the United States apply to several other developed countries. For a long time, women were victims of a sort of vicious circle where their mothers’ narrow job prospects did not encourage them to go further in their studies and professional aspirations even if the reality on the ground may have evolved. It was, in fact, only from the 1970s onwards that the aspirations of younger people and the opportunities offered in the economy were better aligned, to the point where the level of training of women is now generally higher than that of men.
This does not prevent women from still being victims today of an unfavorable average pay gap of around 12% compared to men in developed OECD countries (10% in Quebec and 17% in Canada) . This shortfall is less and less the result of simple discrimination, as the left thinks, or of a choice of less paying sectors of professional activity, as we say on the right, our new Nobel Prize showed. .
In fact, women’s pay is now very similar to that of men at the start of their careers. Things get worse with the arrival of the first child in the household. This stems from a well-known phenomenon where many more women than men then put their careers on hold to look after children until they are at least old enough to go to school. This delay in the professional career is then paid for throughout the career.
But it’s more than that, explains Claudia Goldin. This is because many of the highest paying positions require longer and changing work hours at all kinds of times of the week, which is largely incompatible with family responsibilities. Once again, couples tend to decide to leave this type of better-paid job to the man, while the woman will take a job with more stable hours in order to be able to respond to possible additional work and other related emergencies, those, to family life.
This phenomenon, particularly present among university graduates, is also in the process of diminishing, Claudia Goldin explained last year to Financial Times, the concentration of companies in professional sectors and the scarcity of labor leading them to better align their mode of operation with family reality. The shock of the COVID-19 pandemic also taught them that they could do differently.
The Quebec example
Trained at the University of Chicago, the economist remains cautious when the time comes to call for state intervention, whatever the cause. The example of Quebec has, however, shown what more generous parental leave and a public system of low-cost childcare could do, wrote economist Pierre Fortin in December 2021 in News. The participation rate of women in the labor market has increased from 74% to 87% in the space of just 25 years and 80% of the wage decline that previously followed the birth of a child has been erased.
But hey, we can’t know everything. Not even a Nobel Prize.