February 22, 2010, 6:00 AM
By NANCY FOLBRE
Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
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 analysis of 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 provision 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.
Median weekly earnings for women working full-time came to 80 cents for every dollar a man earns in 2008, compared to about 62 cents in 1970. But women are much less likely than men to work full time, year round, because they typically take time out to care for family members. One study that examines differences in earnings over a 15-year period shows women earning, on average, less than 40 cents for every dollar a man earns.
Women who don’t marry or have kids earn about the same as men with the same qualifications. Going without a family life seems a rather steep price to pay for equality.
Men experience a different, often less costly trade-off: Becoming a parent typically leads them to increase their hours of market work. They give up some leisure and some family time, but their earnings go up, along with their lifelong career prospects.
Married men devote significantly more time to housework and child care than they used to. But many fathers remain unmarried, and the risk of divorce remains relatively high, between 40 and 50 percent.
Divorced men are more likely to remarry than divorced women, and often successfully find someone younger and healthier than they who will take care of them as they age.
Some argue that the advent of no-fault divorce laws made it too easy for men to leave marriages, increasing women’s economic vulnerability. But the cost of staying in a bad marriage is quite high. Analysis of differences across states in implementation of no-fault rules reveals that they significantly lowered both women’s suicide rates and domestic violence, including murders of wives.
College-educated women seem better positioned than other women to bake their cake and eat it too. Relatively high earnings make them attractive to potential marriage partners and improve their bargaining power, which helps them persuade men to take on more responsibilities for family care.
Once married, they can use their earnings to buy high-quality substitutes for their own time, often from less-educated immigrant women providing domestic services, child care and elder care.
Partly because they tend to marry at a later age, when both they and their partners are more mature, college-educated women are less likely to divorce. If they do divorce, however, they’re better able to hire a good lawyer.
These factors may help explain why women are now more likely than men to enter and complete college. The access to better jobs that a diploma provides helps them improve the trade-off between independence and commitment.
That trade-off remains far more costly for less-educated women, who face a high risk of poverty when they become mothers.