time demands in economics

I keep telling myself I am done with these diversity blog posts. I am beyond busy in my new job (managing is hard) and presenting, let alone doing research, takes a major wrinkle in time. That’s all before I get to being a mom. Navigating my kids’ schedules (daughter made basketball team, yeah, destroyed my after-school logistics, boo), dealing with discipline issues (ability to sit still and be quiet are not traits I passed on to my son), and listening to my kids takes so much time.

I am tempted to free ride on others who have the time and energy and expertise to write about diversity in economics. And are allowed to do press calls. That’s why I was so stoked to see Claudia Goldin writing for the New York Times last week … but as I read, I got frustrated:

Fighting to eradicate discriminatory employment practices is absolutely needed, of course. I’ve spent many years studying this subject, and my research shows that unequal treatment in hiring and in the work setting is real and may be reflected in unequal pay.Yet it is also true that the time demands of many jobs can explain much of the pay difference, a finding that has sobering implications.

The “time demands of many jobs can explain” … that’s the careful, neutral language I am accustomed to seeing (and using) as an economist. I AM TIRED OF IT. especially from economists. Why do the “time demands” of being woman in economics (in addition to my work) include having your  vacation interrupted with utter TRASH talk of anonymous economists in the New York Times and Twitter feed; trying to mentor aspiring female economists on how to navigate around the trash or calling out the trash (I have tweeted, written tricky emails, had informal convos, etc.); and answering inquiries from senior economists (ones who I look to for wisdom) asking me on how to deal with sexism in the discipline. Then after all that, women’s contribution to economics is devalued and dismissed. %#@* that.

Breathe. And back to the calmer Claudia … Goldin discusses job characteristics associated with a larger gap in earnings between men and women.

Certain job characteristics have a big impact on the gender earnings gap. I have looked closely at these issues, including the extent to which workers are:

■ Subject to strict deadlines and time pressure

■ Expected to be in direct contact with other workers or clients

■ Instructed to develop cooperative working relationships

■ Assigned to work on highly specific projects

■ Unable to independently determine their tasks and goals

Occupations with a lower level of these characteristics (like jobs in science and technology) show smaller gaps, corrected for hours of work. Occupations with a higher level (like those in finance and law) have greater gaps. Men’s earnings tend to surge when there are fewer substitutes for a given worker, when the job must be done in teams and when clients demand specific lawyers, accountants, consultants and financial advisers. Such differences can account for about half the gender earnings gap.

In my opinion, these characteristics are a starting, not a stopping, point. Too many look at this list and say “ah-hah, it’s not discrimination, it’s the market.” But time demands are not an exogenous shock. Many employers can alter the time demands or support employees in meeting them. At the Board, the 100-hours of back-up child care per year was an amazing benefit when my kids were little. It’s a law of nature that your toddler will throw up in the early morning of your forecast presentation. I had the comfort of knowing that a back-up caregiver was only a phone call away. More importantly, at work, I knew that family came first and I had colleagues who would step in (and I the same) in an emergency and not downgrade my contribution as an economist for it.

Some jobs are harder to restructure, but can we at least stop punishing women who go after those demanding jobs?  Almost every year the Board sends a staff economist to the Council of Economic Advisers. In my first few years at the Board, my family had lunch with a Board economist couple and the topic of the CEA detail came up. I thought this sounded awesome (a project in my undergrad macro course was compiling binders and reports like we were at CEA) but back at home, when I expressed my enthusiasm, I got an earful. “CEA is not a job for women with young children.” True, CEA was a big time demand. Many, many hours (on par with grad school) and the most intensively I have ever worked. Even when I wasn’t on my computer or phone, I was tired. HEY, BUT WE ARE ALL DOING CONSTRAINED OPTIMIZATION. I was willing to pay the costs (both for myself and my kids) for a year, because I saw the benefits as higher. I did not get divorced so I could work at CEA, but by the time I was experienced enough as an economist to be offered the detail, I was a co-parent, not a wife and mom. I wonder how that is captured in Goldin’s regressions?

And speaking of omitted variables and tricky inference … look back at that list of job characteristics and think about how all the harassment of women (and minorities) fits in. It’s hard to “develop cooperative working relationships” when someone is making lewd, aggressive comments or touching you or openly devaluing people like you. Also in the list note the “unable to independently determine” task and goals. Abuse of power is a problem and fuels a lot of the harassment. I get it that men and women may find each other attractive and social mores differed in the past, but there are enough fish in the sea for econ professors to keep views on the physical appearance of their own grad students or female co-workers to themselves.

I was frustrated with the tone in Goldin’s piece (and that’s my flaw not hers) but I wholeheartedly agree with her closing …

Equality on this court requires a level playing field at home and in the market. There are many battles ahead. Unfortunately, they need to be fought at several levels.

Finally, I have no claim to superior insight on this topic or how to ‘fight the good fight.’ I mess up plenty and have rankled both women and men with my personal musings on diversity in economics. And too often, I give a pass to someone’s oafishness because I greatly value his or her economics. Dick Thaler, looking at you, 🙂 But seriously, I appreciate people with all our quirks and differing opinions … and I don’t want to shut down conversation with accusations or public shaming, but we have to be more mindful of our effect on others. And the culture of economics. Good economics is never an excuse for bad behavior. Or put in econo-speak by the great John DiNardo: “How you do on the job market is orthogonal to your value as a human being.” We have to work hard at both.

Author: Claudia Sahm

economist – my views here are my own

21 thoughts on “time demands in economics”

  1. I completely agree that “it’s the market” is a terrible excuse and it skirts any kind of responsibility for making the world better or more equal. On the same note you end on, we should not accept a world where we’re lucky if we have good people doing good work. That should be the norm. Bad people doing good work are still bad people.

    Also, (I know I’m speaking for more people than myself) I’m really glad you chose to work at CEA! I was fortunate to have worked with such a good economist and good person and learned a lot about how to be both. 🙂

  2. Partially, it appears that you are saying that parents (mothers in particular) should get compensated additionally (either more money, more benefits – child care, or more flexible hours).. what would the economic rationale for this be?

    Clearly in hyper competitive companies / industries like silicon valley they have done this (3-6 months paid leave etc), but it feels more like a social justice warrior / moral philosopher than an economist in arguring people with kids should get compensated more.

    Obviously you have strong economic chops, so definitely curious what I am missing.. or perhaps you agree with what I am saying, just simply that it shouldn’t be that way?

    1. Thanks, Sue. I did not intend my post to be a call for compensation for anyone. I was only pointing out that time demands are a choice of employers, families, society, etc and thus could change. I appreciate you reading and reacting to my post. It’s tricky to write on these issues and I could have been clearer.

    2. > what would the economic rationale for this be?

      Easy peasy, workers have productive externalities that they aren’t compensated for by the oh so very precious markets beloved of economists. Which would be one thing, but the market system depends on the very externalities women engage in (child rearing).

  3. I like the list of traits that make up a job women won’t do. Its so clear and a good guide for people choosing careers.

    So those jobs are terrible if you want to have kids influence your time allocation. People can only really handle those jobs if they are willing to leave taking care of kids to someone else. This seems fair. Am I missing something? If you want to be a lawyer you can’t take care of kids. Anyone can choose that.

    It doesn’t seem like a pay gap. It seems like a life preferences gap.


    1. Yes, what is missing is that women are often the “default parent” and the ones subject to the time allocation issues due to children even though in most cases there is also a male parent who is equally capable of taking on childcare related needs but often does not.

      You would likely not tell a man he shouldn’t be a lawyer if he wants kids yet it seems ok to tell a woman that? The gendered roles and attitudes that create this problem aren’t so easy to wave away so a more supportive workplace would help both female *and* male parents manage the time demands of work and parenting more evenly and thus mitigate some of the gendered effects of the time demands issue in pay.

  4. I think an interesting question is what would the ideal framework for workplace policy look like within any given firm look?

    For what it’s, the two sided network of choice described resonates a bunch with me. There’s likely a cultural, process and policy framework that works most effectively.

    Questions: What group does this well? What are the core principles and characteristics, beyond be nice and fair? What are the three things a workplace needs to do in order to move this materially in the right direction?

    All of this assumes men have the capacity to behave better than your average sixth grader (i think we do…) And that firms actually desire the outcome of narrowing the gender equality gap in the workplace (i think they might…)

  5. Equality on this court requires a level playing field at home and in the market. There are many battles ahead. Unfortunately, they need to be fought at several levels.

    Not to be snarky, but is it entirely clear that they “need” to be fought? As noted above, there seems to be something approaching full equality of income for people who want to make “income” one of their choices–as opposed to, say, “time with kids,” “flexibility,” or whatever. When working women can (but don’t) choose that option, on what basis should we assume that we should provide more of it?

    For example, I consciously decided to leave the high powered corporate world and to work in small business. I have great flexibility and a relaxed lifestyle–but less money. That does not represent a failure of society.

  6. Hi Claudia – thank you for your piece. I think it’s a balanced and important elaboration on Goldin’s article. Despite not understanding a lot of economics, my colleagues and I still use economic reasoning to justify choices about how we organize our work – what maximizes utility, or generates the most marginal value. It’s important for us to hear that the features of workplaces that make them hostile to women or families or minorities are not immutable features of our work – ‘exogenous’ as you say. We are free to change them, if we want to. This is something I’ll think about when I manage my own relationship with my staff.

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