Married women learning that paid work pays

The economist Raquel Fernández has a new paper out called, “Cultural Change as Learning: The Evolution of Female Labor Force Participation over a Century” (published version here, free version here). If I understand it, though, “female” labor force participation really only refers to married women. Correct me if you understand this better than I do and I’m wrong, but I think that’s a problem for the theory.

The basic point is that married women learn from the experience of others, producing a generational change in employment rates as positive experiences transmit to younger cohorts. As it became more culturally acceptable for married women to have jobs, the cultural effect accelerated, but it reached a saturation point resulting in the stalled progress toward higher employment rates among (married) women. Here are the trends she uses:

fernandezThe normative survey question she relies on is about whether it’s OK for a woman to work “if her husband can support her.” The S-shape of labor force participation rates is supposed to be consistent with the cultural transmission theory (rather than being caused by, for example, anemic work-family policy, anti-feminist backlash, or hollow anti-discrimination enforcement).

But I don’t see anything in the paper about increasing non-marriage (now about twice as common as in 1960), or about labor force participation rates for single women. Shouldn’t economists be concerned about that kind of selection issue? In fact, labor force participation rates for single women have stalled, too, as my figure shows:

lfp by marital status 60-11

I don’t think attitudes toward married women’s work — or anything about marriage alone — are going bear the burden of explaining two decades of stalled progress into the labor force for both single and married women. I’m happy to have cultural explanations as part of the mix here, but I don’t think this one will do it.



2 thoughts on “Married women learning that paid work pays

  1. I think part of the problem is the federal tax and benefits scheme built around lower taxes and direct subsidies to sole breadwinners/nonearning parents.


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