Freako - NO - mics (the w stands for women)

Freakonomics was the first book that really got me enthusiastic about economics, it is clever and entertaining, and it lets the reader peek into the world of economics, a world which is so much more than just “the economy”. After seriously questioning myself and my passion for economics while studying for my exams (given that I was not learning anything new) I decided to pick up the “Frequel” (not my words) of the Freakonomics franchise, “Superfreakonomics” to reignite the fire. The introduction made me laugh and I was excited to dive into more of those connections which seem random on the surface such as the relationship between Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo or prostitutes and department store Santas. The first chapter delved into the connection between the latter. I wondered how great of an idea it was to have two white men writing about (female) prostitution, but I tried to keep an open mind so I carried on. It felt cringy when they discussed women’s bodies in terms of goods that can be traded and sold but this was a book about economics after all so I was prepared.

What I was not prepared for was the subsequent superficial and lazy explanation of the gender pay gap in a book that prides itself on doing rigorous research and uncovering “the hidden side of everything”. The same chapter that (barely) links prostitutes to department store Santas also discusses the gender pay gap. The authors try to investigate why female business MBAs with the same qualifications as their male counterparts still earn less on average. The explanation suggested was so elegant, so simple that I was instantly convinced:

End of blog post.

Actually, no. Let me explain. There is evidence that some of the gender pay gap is explained by women taking longer time away from work (and work less if they have children) as opposed to men, so that men spend more time on their career than women. But also, men love money, the two Steves assert, and demonstrate this with a simple example that showed men responding to financial incentives stronger than women. To summarize up to here, women with business MBAs work less, love children and respond less strongly to financial incentives. But – rest assured – their degree is not worthless. No, it’s not because they make important contributions to the business world or provide a different viewpoint to a male-dominated field, instead, maybe women go through all the trouble of higher education in the first place so they can find a man who can earn even higher wages than them and provide for their family (the same reason why I put myself through exams, internships, extracurriculars and so on).  

This is an introductory book to economics and I understand that the authors cannot discuss every topic in as much depth as they’d want to (or should) but given the dire situation of women in economics (and business) maybe they could’ve dug a little further than just the studies that confirm gender stereotypes.  Because, while the boyz have finally found their “unifying theme” in the introduction – people respond to incentives – sadly the incentives laid out for women by society aren’t discussed in this context.
What about parental leave for example? They don’t mention that most women in the U.S. get maternity leave, whereas paidpaternity leave is rare. The message here is clear: women should stay home with the children, men should get on with their careers and earn money. In countries such as Iceland where parental leave is split more evenly between the parents,  fathers take more days of paternity leave. Iceland also happens to be the number 1 in terms of gender equality according to the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report (I wonder why). These policies are only one example that shows how women are typically pushed out of the workforce and into child-caring responsibilities, and how a change in policy can improve this gender gap. 

Repeating the same old stereotypes and ostensibly backing them up with studies by only showing this one perspective just reinforces the patterns of discrimination that women are still facing today. Smart economics (and smart books about economics) should think more about the incentives policies signal to young families and whether they truly ensure equality rather than sticking to the status quo.

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