There are good reasons why economics is called “the dismal science“, one reflects upon reading The Logic of Life by Tim Harford (The Undercover Economist). It shows us why revolutions are rare, why special interests systematically prevail in politics, and why, rationally speaking, it’s hard to justify expending the energy to go out and cast your vote in an election (“Steve Landsburg goes so far as to suggest that if you want to change politics, you would be better advised to buy a lottery ticket with the intention of spending the proceeds on lobbying.”)
A chapter examines a number of experiments showing how racism emerges in the workplace, even with a level playing field (call two equally endowed groups of people, say, “green” and “purple”) where decisions are subject to tiny random variations, and how in real life company recruiters actually do categorize resumes into three buckets: “white and good”, “white and mediocre”, and “black”. The key here is to distinguish “taste-based discrimination” (which is irrational and self-defeating) from “statistical discrimination”, which Harford chooses to call “rational racism” in order to drive the point that it won’t go away if we don’t do something about it (“doing something”, in econo-speak, typically being about changing the incentive structure for decision-makers).
Yet, Harford misses the opportunity to apply his own findings to women in the workplace. Let’s try.
First of all, through the whole “division of labor and comparative advantage” spiel, he makes it clear that we don’t necessarily need to become much better performers in the office; we’d be better advised to start by becoming a lot less competent at domestic work, something I have already argued for. However, once we’ve rebalanced the housework, we’re still stuck with an inescapable reality. Say that eighty per cent of women, over the course of their working life, take some time out to bear one or more children. The actual bearing of the children is hardly outsourceable (surrogacy is forbidden in many jurisdictions, and adoption has its own costs and requirements on the parent’s time). So, first of all, we’d be well advised to keep maternity leave at a minimum, and to introduce a mandatory matching paternity leave for fathers. But how many men will vote for that? It’s against their interests, since caring for an infant child is notoriously much harder than hanging around the office water cooler.
The reality is that the individual woman will have less opportunities in the workplace regardless of whether she actually bears children or not. That’s exactly what Harford calls “rational discrimination”: and it doesn’t even take a majority of infant-bearing women to make this happen. It would probably happen, say, even if five per cent of women produced all the infants in the world, and ninety-five per cent remained childless. Because, you see, ex ante the employer has no way to tell whether a given woman is going to bear children.
Women fight hard against this structural disadvantage (for example, by getting more years of education). Yet, for the individual career-minded woman, game theory shows that the only way to become as attractive to an employer as her male counterpart would be to signal that she is not going to bear children, and to do so in a credible manner. As Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling says, “the ability to make a binding promise is very useful”. Unfortunately, about the only way to make this type of promise binding and therefore credible is to get irreversibly sterilized, and to show the surgeon’s certificate to prospective employers.
Unless you view this as a desirable social outcome, you have to agree on at least one of two solutions. It’s either compulsory paternity leave for new fathers, for at least as long as the mother’s maternity leave (or probably even longer, to compensate for the share of children born in fatherless households); or another way to change the incentive structure, such as quotas for women in congressional and governmental postions, company boards (the Norwegians are doing this), and most other jobs with perks.
I have come to be, personally, in favor of both.