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Different value assigned to overwork and carework spurs gender inequality

Oct 31 2013

Two years ago, Occupy Wall Street protestors turned out en masse on the sidewalks of New York City. This began a movement that spread rapidly, drawing attention to the vast economic disparities in modern industrialized countries.

In response, Stanford faculty held an Occupy teach-in that addressed various aspects of inequality. The teach-in eventually culminated in a recently published collaborative book project called Occupy the Future (2013). Among the contributions is sociologist Shelley Correll's essay about economic inequality between men and women. After all, notes Correll, women comprise just 12 percent of the top one percent of wage-earning Americans.

Why does this economic gap exist, asks Correll? She finds a partial explanation by looking at cultural ideas about gender that influence public and workplace policy. On the one hand, working long hours in paid employment—an activity usually performed by men—leads to overtime pay and higher salaries. On the other hand, necessary hours devoted to childcare—an activity usually performed by women—receives no economic reward.

At first, this state of affairs might make intuitive sense: Parents who do carework aren’t working “for” anyone, so there is no reason they should be compensated. And workers who put in long hours certainly deserve higher salaries.

Correll, however, makes a surprising argument. She shows that carework helps the economy by ensuring a future workforce. But overwork, by contrast, hurts the economy because it leads to workplace mistakes and lower productivity.

If Correll is right, then then the way we assign economic reward to these activities is not logical—and neither is the economic inequality between men and women.

Overlooking the value of carework

Correll argues that raising children is a significant contribution to the economy. After all, where would the United States economy be without a future workforce?  Correll reframes carework in economic terms. In raising families, women are developing human capital. 

The World Bank estimates that social and human capital represents as much as 59 percent of a developed nation’s wealth. Yet, Correll argues, we continue to undervalue the careworkers who ensure the future of such capital.

For example, mothers earn no direct social security credits for their contributions.

(Correll points out that a nanny who provides carework for a child earns some social security credits, but a mother who provides carework does not—creating a bizarre economic disincentive for people to do carework for their own children.)

Sure, women also work in the paid labor force—an activity that does bring economic reward. But even so, they do twice as much carework as their male counterparts, according to Correll, and they often find that it conflicts with their paid employment duties.

These competing demands lead to smaller earnings over the course of many women’s careers—they are less able to work long hours than men and are often perceived as being “less dedicated."

Overwork is overvalued

“Overwork”—that is, working more than 50 hours per week—becomes more viable for men with their female counterparts doing the bulk of the family’s domestic carework. In fact, Correll reports on research showing that “overwork is more than twice as prevalent among professional men (36 percent) as among professional women (15 percent).”  

Although it may seem that overwork would benefit the workplace (and thus justify additional pay), research demonstrates that the reverse is true.  Long hours at work have diminishing returns.

“After a certain amount of time at work,” Correll writes, “people simply cannot perform at their optimal capacity…  and mak[e] more mistakes at work.” Rewarding overwork not only defies economic rationality, it also disproportionately benefits men.

By rewarding “activities usually performed by men and penalizing the ones usually performed by women,” Correll argues, “we widen the gender gap—effectively manufacturing gender-based economic inequality—by allowing cultural ideas about gender to infuse our public policies and workplace practices.”  

The gender-based inequities that result, concludes Correll, are neither “natural,” nor "inevitable. "

Occupy the Future

Other chapters of Occupy the Future address educational, political, racial, and environmental inequality. 

For example, professors David Grusky and Kim Weeden argue that offering high-quality primary and secondary education could combat poverty. And Rob Reich and Debra Satz find that “social mobility in America is lower today than a generation ago,” undermining the core values of liberal democracy. Doug McAdam’s chapter looks to the future of Occupy, arguing that although the protests have created space to discuss critical issues, Occupy needs more participants and sustained mobilization in order to be a true social movement.

Overall, Occupy the Future critically assesses the inequalities that have shaped the United States, offering a “broader framework for understanding why rising inequality is the core problem of our time.”

The book reminds readers that not only is inequality unjust, it is also open to change. As Correll notes, “the allocation of economic resources in a society is anything but inevitable.”

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.