Professor at the University of Chicago, Marianne Bertrand (Spa, Belgium, 51 years old) is one of the great experts in labor market research, with a special focus on the gender gap. He is optimistic about the future of equality at work, although he sees that the pandemic has punished women more. Since March 2020, it has been studying, with periodic updates, the economic effects of COVID in the service sector in the United States. He recently traveled to Barcelona to deliver the inaugural lecture on economics studies at Pompeu Fabra University.
Question. In her research she is optimistic about how the labor market is correcting the gender gap in “stable progress”. But alert that the pandemic has stopped.
Answer. Recessions typically hit manufacturing first, with more men present. The pandemic, on the other hand, has hit the service sector more. Many women have also left their jobs to dedicate themselves to parenting. The schools were closed. This crisis is calling She-cession [mezcla de la palabra “ella” con “recesión” en inglés].
P. But, with both members spending more time at home, wasn’t it an opportunity to promote equality from home?
R. Yes, and so it has been. There is evidence in an investigation in India – one of the countries with the most gender inequality – that during confinement men participated more in housework. However, it seems that it did not last. Is there anything left of all this? It is a very interesting question.
P. It highlights that being a father for the first time does not affect men’s income. However, those of women are reduced by 61% in Germany, 44% in the United Kingdom and 21% in Denmark, the latter country despite being one of the most advanced in terms of equality.
R. These are figures taken with data from 5 to 10 years after the baby was born compared to what would have happened if they had not had children. Crazy, right? It includes the figures for women who left the labor market and also those who opted for reduced hours or switched to another job with a lower salary.
P. Is it a personal option of them?
R. I studied to see what happened to women with MBAs, those who have invested a lot of time and money in their education. The pattern is the same. I’ve thought about this a lot: what are our preferences? In economics we take it for granted that we are born with them. But they come from somewhere: from education and those that are endogenous to the environment. Women feel that they have to stay home to care for their children. Is it their option or have they internalized social pressures to do so?
P. Spain is one of the countries that has equated paternity leave with maternity leave of 16 weeks.
R. In academia we call this ‘dad quotas’. They are policies clearly focused on changing stereotypes. They serve to gradually transform gender norms and ultimately help women in the labor market.
P. Some feminist associations defend that the permission of women should be extended.
R. It is not so clear. The data shows that shorter maternity leave helps. In the United States we do not have maternity leave. Stupid right? But we have evidence that leaves longer than one year – in Europe there are some – are counterproductive, particularly for women with studies. If you are an entrepreneur and you hire a woman who has higher education, but you know that then you will not have it for more than a year, you may decide not to assign the most important clients to her.
P. You also conclude that women’s quotas on the boards of directors of large companies – 30% in Spain – have limited effects.
R. I studied the Norwegian ones, 40%. The bottom line was that if you force companies to seek qualified women for their advice, they will find them. This is great. But we study the effect of having more women in charge on the rest of the organization and it does not translate into a reduction in the global wage gap or more work-life balance policies. Quotas are intended to be good, but they don’t have the transformative effects that they were naively thought to have.
P. Is diversity generally promoted enough in companies?
R. I see inclusion more difficult. If you promote the entry of women into companies, ethnic minorities and people with different sexual orientations, these voices are heard and they are no longer stereotyped. That leads to better processes and ideas in the company and in the end everyone wins. This seems obvious, it is the Holy Grail for many of us, but it is hard to prove.
P. His study on the effects of covid on the labor market took into account 5,800 small companies, which lost 40% of their employees. And 435 of them had to close temporarily. How are they recovering?
R. We are realizing that many companies now have problems hiring people: they do not want to work in stores or restaurants… There is a great debate about the growth of the UI (unemployment insurance) system. Some think that why work according to what if they will earn more with the benefit. But in the data we don’t see this. I think people don’t want these jobs until they are really safe. And in some states vaccination rates are still really low.