Joyce Jacobsen discussed family leave policies and Wesleyan major distribution in a Female Economists of Wesleyan-sponsored event.

The Female Economists of Wesleyan (FEW) and the Office of Academic Affairs cosponsored a round table discussion on Wednesday, Oct. 21, on gender economics led by Joyce Jacobsen, University Provost and Professor of Economics. The event was also supported by the Economics and Feminism and Gender Studies Departments.

Jacobsen gave a survey of several key issues in gender economics, such as maternity leave and pay disparity, analyzing the policies of the U.S. as opposed to policies in European nations. She also discussed examples from her own life to further illustrate her points.

The talk opened with Jacobsen defining gender economics, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging the disunity of households, which are frequently treated in economics as single objects.

“Basically, economics of gender is a very large area,” Jacobsen said. “If I thought about what defines it theoretically, compared to a standard economic model, the idea that not all agents are homogenous, for instance, you can imagine having two different kinds of agents, and you could label one male and one female, or men and women, and that should give you very different types of models.… and also moves you away from a framework in which households are viewed as unitary objects, with no power struggles going on within households. So you think of households, basically, as a form of non-market production where two different kinds of agents are coming in, it becomes much clearer that there’s not this sort of unitary thing, that households have this sort of combined utility function.”

The talk centered on three main issues: gender segregation in profession and education, differences between men and women with regard to professional advancement, and increasingly capitalistic modern feminism. Jacobsen explored the issue of gender segregation through academic majors and the practice of tipping.

“So the percent of women at Wesleyan is about 55 percent now… yet we see that the majors don’t all represent that 56 percent or 44 percent breakdown… Science majors in particular, and I’ll include economics with that, have a much more heavy predominance of men, while the maybe ‘softer’ fields, and I actually include psychology in that pat, have more predominance of women,” Jacobsen said. “There’s lots and lots of segregation in the labor market, and this segregation is linked in many cases, or appears to be to be linked, with pay outcomes as well.”

Jacobsen discussed the disparity between men and women in higher professional levels, stating that women generally did not negotiate well with their bosses, nor did they generally ask for promotion or pay raises as often as their male counterparts.

“Within any organization, men are more likely to ask for pay raises and to ask for promotion,” Jacobsen said. “And so, they make it so that if you don’t ask, the organization may or may not think to ask you if you want a promotion or if you want a raise. And so, although men and women may come in with the same starting salary, and that’s not necessarily true—men may be able to already negotiate a higher starting salary—then they’re going to diverge as they move through the ranks, both because men will move up faster and at each level, they may be starting to get paid more.”

Jacobsen also commented on contemporary feminism’s alignment with capitalism, as opposed to 1950s feminism’s alignment with socialism. She further commented on what she perceived to be a push for preferential treatment in maternal leave, as opposed to the gender-neutral push of family leave.

“There’s some recent feminists, including a number of my younger colleagues actually pushing against [family friendly and woman-friendly policies] and actually saying that in order to be fair by gender, we need to give more preferential treatment to women on things like parental leave, about child care, etc., as opposed to treating everything as gender-neutral, which was kind of the older policy,” she said.

Jacobsen insisted on the need to find new and better social policies than not only those in the US but also in Sweden, which result in a high percentage of female participation in the workforce but mostly in part-time, low-paying jobs.

“You can learn something by looking at other countries and seeing how they have slightly different institutional structures, but still, even when you look at European countries, it’s not like women are doing that much better on these aspects of improving the gender difference,” Jacobsen said. “So, that it is true that in Sweden women are more likely to participate in the labor market than in the US, but their labor participation is part time workers, and so the wage movement isn’t that great. And, probably, the only reason why their pay ratio is the same as ours or perhaps even a little better is because top earners in Sweden are tamped down because they have such high tax rates.”

Kerry Nix ’16, founder of FEW and one of the organizers of the event, found the discussion enjoyable and useful.

“I thought it was really interesting,” Nix said. “Professor Jacobsen touched on a lot of issues that students are interested in, and she covered a huge range of topics that a lot of students had questions about, particularly employment and education at Wesleyan, their experiences at Wesleyan too, and she responded really well to questions too. I thought it was a really fun discussion.”

Melissa Lowe ’17, another organizer, also benefited from the event but felt that it was limited by time constraints.

“I think every topic that was discussed, whether it was looking at how people are segregated by gender in their occupations—so the tipping idea, and then power organizations, discussing whether feminism is a socialistic idea or a capitalistic idea—I think all of [them are] interesting topics, but she can’t really continue into them as far as she has knowledge or experience to, I think because of time limits,”  Lowe said.

Nix commented on one example of policy interventions that Jacobsen cited, an East German effort towards total employment that led to 85 percent of women working full-time and a drastic drop in birthrates.

“I’m interested in, particularly, how the types of policy intervention, also considering whether certain patterns are problems,” Nix said. “In one sense, for instance, is women choosing to have children instead of being in the labor force, is that a problem necessarily? How do you decided whether a policy intervention is necessary? I think the example she talked about with [East] Germany, the intervention that led to 85 percent [of women] joining the workforce, that led to a huge decline in birthrates, and so it was kind of too aggressive an attempt.”

FEW plans to hold another round table discussion this semester, with details to be announced.

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