Sunday, June 26, 2016

I see the problem emerging but not yet the solution

This is interesting when taken in combination with a number of other research reports I have seen recently.

From A Family-Friendly Policy That’s Friendliest to Male Professors by Justin Wolfers.
The underrepresentation of women among the senior ranks of scholars has led dozens of universities to adopt family-friendly employment policies. But a recent study of economists in the United States finds that some of these gender-neutral policies have had an unintended consequence: They have advanced the careers of male economists, often at women’s expense.

Similar patterns probably hold in other disciplines, too.

The central problem is that employment policies that are gender-neutral on paper may not be gender-neutral in effect. After all, most women receive parental benefits only after bearing the burden of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and often, a larger share of parenting responsibilities. Yet fathers usually receive the same benefits without bearing anything close to the same burden. Given this asymmetry, it’s little wonder some recently instituted benefits have given men an advantage.


To combat these disparities, many universities have adopted tenure-extension policies that give new parents greater flexibility. Typically, this means extending the seven-year period of tenure evaluation, usually by an extra year for each child. In practice, these policies are usually gender-neutral, giving dads an extra year to establish their reputations, just like moms. Universities typically adopted such policies in the 1990s and early 2000s, while about one-fifth chose not to do so.
Sound a little cryptic? What they are saying, but trying not to say, is that when male and female academics are both given the same generous parent leave benefits, male academics use that leave to accelerate their academic output above and beyond what they would normally have been able to do with a normal work load while female academics spend the leave taking care of the child.

So what were the results of the family friendly gender neutral parental leave policies that were enacted?
The policies led to a 19 percentage-point rise in the probability that a male economist would earn tenure at his first job. In contrast, women’s chances of gaining tenure fell by 22 percentage points. Before the arrival of tenure extension, a little less than 30 percent of both women and men at these institutions gained tenure at their first jobs. The decline for women is therefore very large. It suggests that the new policies made it extraordinarily rare for female economists to clear the tenure hurdle.
If it is as reported, that is a massive effect size. Before the family friendly policy, 30% of women and 30% of men gained tenure at their first job. After the family friendly policies, the reporting is that 8% of women and 49% of men gained tenure at their first job. I am pretty certain that was not the intended outcome.

The whole article is written from an advocacy perspective. The author, Wolfers, is clearly positioning that parental leave should not be gender neutral but should be held only for mothers. His evidence that the gender neutral policy is not addressing the underlying problem is compelling. One of the advocates interviewed points out, correctly, that:
The problem, said Ms. Davis-Blake, is that “giving birth is not a gender-neutral event,” recalling that during her pregnancy, “I threw up every day.” She argued, “Policies that are neutral in the eyes of a lawyer are not neutral in fact.”
I see this as further evidence to the argument I have been making for some time, that gender policies are often ineffective, have unintended negative consequences, and position women as second class protected citizens without actually delivering the intended benefits. I believe the reason that this is so is because the issue is not about gender but a complex interplay between six realities:
1. Expertise, accomplishment and elevated productivity are, broadly, the result of the amount of purposeful time invested in an effort along with the duration. The more hours you put into the endeavor over the longer the period of time, the more productive you become and the more expert, leading to rewards and recognition. This is true for males and females as illustrated by similar success rates for males and females of comparable background who are both childless.

2. The beneficial outcomes generated by intense purposeful effort are logarithmic in nature and Pareto distributed. In other words, if it takes 10,000 hours of sustained purposeful effort to achieve expertise, the first 8,000 or 9,000 hours won't result in much differentiation in outcome. It is only at the far margins of performance where the results become evident; that is the logarithmic aspect. The Pareto distribution arises from the logarithmic nature of the effort. 80% of the beneficial outcomes (be it income, stock return, rewards, citations, recognition, etc.) will be garnered by 20% of those involved in the field. Regardless of gender. Consequently, everything depends on the capacity to invest an exceptional number of hours over a prolonged period of time to garner the rewards that come with distinctive capability.

This reality gives the lie to the common advice to pursue your passion. If beneficial outcomes in terms of income and recognition are the goal, the actual advice should be pursue your passion to the extent that it is something where you have differential capability and which is in demand by others. If nobody wants it, you won't be rewarded. If you do not have native capability that will yield something at the 8-9,000 mark, it doesn't matter how passionate you are.

3. Childbirth and childcare are inherently disruptive to intense work over long spans of time. The more time off and the longer the disruption, the greater the impact on career outcomes. Hours invested in child welfare and in career welfare are a zero sum game. What one receives the other loses. For individuals, the choices are minimal childcare, outsourced childcare, familial childcare (member of the family looking after the child) or some division of labor with a spouse. Other than minimization, all other strategies involve some diminution of career outcomes. This aspect is essentially a trade-off decision between child welfare and career welfare which are zero sum between them.

4. Familial structure and circumstances is obviously a major determining factor in outcome determination. Childbearing within the context of a family unit is statistically far more beneficial to overall outcomes than is single parent childbearing. Similarly, variance over time (separations, divorces, etc.) is also detrimental to desired outcomes.

5. In addition to the child-career trade-off, and familial structure, there is also a complex familial structure trade-off. Within a family choices are available, often influenced by particular career prospects at the time of childbearing. Do both parents continue working full time with family member or other third party taking up the child caring role? One work full time and the other exit the workforce? Both moderate workforce investment so that both can equally invest in childcare? One work full time and the other work part-time? The list of alternative career and child caring balancing within the family unit are extensive. Some have reasonably well known outcomes and others are less documented. Much depends on estimations of career uncertainties and prospects - estimates which are not necessarily accurate.

6. There is an inherent class inequality in these trade-off decisions. The cost of good childcare is relatively fixed within narrow boundaries regardless of individual circumstances. Given that it is a fixed cost, the overall burden on those with little income and low social capital are excessive, dramatically limiting their capacity to achieve desirable outcomes.
Given these relatively well established facts, I believed it is a chimera to chase after gender discriminatory policies. Women should not receive extra assistance because they have a baby. It is the parent who takes on the primary burden of childcare who should be considered for support, not the gender. I.e. support for the role, not the gender.

But even that is problematic from a philosophical and ethical perspective. A policy that might be neutral at an individual level is likely not neutral when you consider it between family structures. I have observed elsewhere that much of the policy debate is cast as a competition between genders when it is in fact a competition between family structures.

Take, for example, a gender neutral policy such as high quality childcare for everyone. This is a thought experiment, not a practical suggestion. If everyone has access to high quality childcare, the returns are highly differential based on family structure. Single and childless people pay higher taxes but receive no direct benefit. For those with low human, financial, and social capital, it presumably benefits those who might not otherwise be able to work but it does not substantially change their income level.

It won't make any difference for the 30% of mothers who stay home as a choice (i.e. they have chosen child welfare over career welfare). And it won't make much difference to those in the workforce in any sort of non-exceptional career path. The only people for whom such a policy would be materially beneficial are those where one or both of the income earners is in pursuit of the 10,000 hour excellence and cannot afford to see an interruption or decline in the career hour investments.

In other words, looking at career/child trade-off decisions and intra-family structure trade-off decisions, the only people who materially benefit from this seemingly benign and beneficial policy are the 5-10% upper income already highly advantaged people who have chosen good careers and good family structures.

That everyone else should subsidize the already most privileged is obviously not ethically right.

So what is the answer? I don't know. My head hurts. I'll keep chipping away at this. But what the evidence is telling me is that the problem is badly defined in the first place, most of our popular policy remedies are counterproductive or detrimental and we are not ready to talk about real remedies to real problems because most of the current solutions, while detrimental to others, tend to be highly beneficial to the most privileged.

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