Nancy Folbre, UMass economics professor and contributor the NY Times Blog, Economix, examines gender inequality and trade-offs in a recent post. Although women’s income, relative to men’s, has improved over the last forty years, increasing from 62 cents to the dollar in 1970 to 80 cents in 2008, Folbre argues that it has not come without trade-offs. For instance, women are less likely to get full-time job because they are typically the family caretakers. And although unmarried women, who don’t have as many responsibilities, earn almost equal pay as men, Folbre points out that “going without a family seems a rather steep price to pay for equality.”
It’s pretty hard to get something for nothing. That’s one reason why economists like to analyze trade-offs.
Changing gender roles in our society have created some rather complicated trade-offs, and that helps explain why it’s hard to assess progress toward gender equality.
Women on nonfarm payrolls — a measure that includes part-time workers — now slightly outnumber men. Employers find women attractive to hire in part because women typically earn less than men with the same education.
A recent comparative analysisof 21 countries by two sociologists at the University of Washington, Becky Pettit and Jennifer Hook, reports that women’s labor-force participation tends to be lower in countries where their earnings relative to men are higher.
For instance, in Germany and Italy, a smaller percentage of women work for pay than in the United States, but those who are employed earn more, on average, relative to men. Women who overcome the obstacles to employment there tend to be high earners.
Across all countries, overall inequalities in wage income influence average differences in men’s and women’s earnings. So do public policies such as child care provisions that help adults cope with trade-offs between paid and unpaid work — and, more broadly, between economic independence and family commitment.
These trade-offs remain sharply significant in the United States.