The great disappearing act: Gender parity up the corporate ladder

(in response to The great disappearing act: Gender parity up the corporate ladder by Bain & Company)

I note that most of the arguments in the paper support the idea that solving division of labour within the family is essential for solving inequality at work. You will always have people on both sides of the fence that cling to their guns. You will have men who want to control the workplace, and feel threatened by a strong female on their “territory”. Similarly, you will have women who want to control the children and the family, perceiving both as their “natural biological domain”. In the end the arguments are exactly the same and these issues cannot be dealt with in isolation. Allow me to explain why:

From the economic perspective, the most important issue is an efficient allocation of resources. This can not happen if outdated gender roles persist, because they inhibit the mobility of labour. Of course, under the current system, non-misogynist employers should be able to obtain qualified female talent for less money than comparable male talent, thus ensuring higher profit margins for those companies, and the eventual phasing out of misogynist companies altogether due to their higher labour costs. Unfortunately, the efficient market hypothesis appears to have failed in this regard.

Another economic argument relates to the overall number of vacancies in the economy. Assume, for example that a hypothetical economy that has 1000 industry positions, initially filled by 1000 men. The 1000 men provide support to 1000 women. Hence, women initially form the “Family Workforce” while “Industry Workforce” consists of men only. Now assume that the economy experiences a social paradigm shift that liberates women to pursue careers on a more-or-less equal footing to men. Invoking “ceteris paribus” for the productive capacity of the economy as a whole (for simplicity, assume that quantities of capital and marginal costs of labour remain the same), we can immediately see that entry of 500 women into the “industry workforce” will require the displacement of 500 men. What to do with the 500 newly-ewomancipated male members of the workforce? For a start, the entry of 500 women into the “industry workforce” has generated vacancies in the area of childcare, it would seem that the most natural arrangement would be to move more men into childcare. Socialised or collective childcare can help fill some of the vacancies generated by the shift. However, this will inevitably result in a larger number of children per carer and lower quality of care. It could also be argued that the biological parents are most likely to provide the best care for the child (in light of this last argument, the feasibility of the two-earner household model should be examined with a critical eye).

There are two main obstacles to the labour reallocation between “Family Workforce” and “Industry Workforce”: social and legal. The social obstacle involves the perception that women are more suited to childcare than men (even though you state, on p.4 that “While 80 percent of the women surveyed feel that both men and women are equally good caregivers at home to children, only 56 percent of the men surveyed agree”, this sentiment may not be shared across all of society and workforce). The legal obstacle involves outdated family law in most Western Countries, that stresses the importance of the mother as the principal carer (legacy of sociological and child-psychological research from the 1950s). As a result, a man in the family courts (collectively speaking, there are exceptions on both sides) experiences a situation not entirely dissimilar to that of a woman in an investment bank. Both operate in a hostile environment. For example, 88% of single parent families in the UK are headed by women, while according to your article, 88% of companies in Western Europe are headed by men. Are these percentages just a coincidence?

The inelasticity of the “Family Workforce” results in inelasticity of the “Industry Workforce”, because the two cannot be viewed in isolation. Even though corporate policies may mandate equality, the reality will always fall short of this ideal until social perceptions and legal realities change.

A solution to this dilemma will necessarily involve changing the perception of gender-preferred occupations (not only mother and fathers, but also hairdressers and soldiers, childcare workers and police(wo)men. Finland, for example, has come up with an interesting idea (in place since 1980s, and appears to be working quite well): the vocational training system is set up in such a way that women get extra points for training as car mechanics and carpenters and in other traditionally male professions. Men, on the other hand, get extra points for teaching and childcare positions. The same applies at university, so that traditionally male-dominated fields such as maths and physics accept women with slightly lower scores than men. Similarly, sociology and gender studies prefer men.

Any other attempts to level the playing field notwithstanding, equality in Family Law is a “sine qua non” for eliminating the gender gap in the industry workforce.