Workplace gender inequality researched by Kahn and Blau

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Partners in influential and extensive research on gender wage inequality and international comparisons of labor market outcomes, Professors Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn are also partners in life as a married couple. They are the parents of two grown children.

Here, Blau and Kahn discuss their research and how the trends they are finding impact inequality in the workplace and within society.


Your 2013 study comparing female labor force participation rates among economically advanced countries continues to be broadly cited in mainstream media. Why has this study struck such a chord?

BLAU  One of the main things we found is that the U.S. used to be a leader in female participation. In fact, it ranked sixth of a set of 22 economically advanced countries in 1990; by 2010 it ranked 17th. So, this is a very attention-grabbing headline — the U.S. is really slipping, relative to its peers, in terms of female labor force participation. Also, I think that a lot of families note these work family issues in their everyday lives — issues that can impact the ability of women to work in the labor force, as well as how far women can advance in the workforce.

KAHN  One of the things that struck us, and maybe struck some of the media, was that the other countries didn’t just catch up to the U.S., they surpassed the U.S. These countries have also had more extensive “family-friendly” policies than the U.S., and expanded these between 1990 and 2010. This suggests that there’s not some natural “ceiling” there that we can’t overcome.

How are benefits and policies impacting the hiring process in the U.S. and other countries?

KAHN  Regarding policy, many European countries give people the right to demand a part-time work schedule, and employers are required to honor that. If you’re an employer and you’re thinking about who you want to hire, and you’re in a labor market where people can ask to be part-time workers, you have to adhere to the law. We think that it is likely to influence employer hiring decisions to the detriment of people, like women, who the employer thinks are going to take advantage of the entitlement.

BLAU  The other thing we discuss in the paper is the length of parental leave, which is very long in many of these countries. These leaves are disproportionately taken by women, even when they are available to both moms and dads. So, employers may stereotype a woman of child-bearing age as someone who might take a long leave. This conversation points to some issues about family-friendly policies. One is that the negative effects on women would probably be less if both moms and dads avail themselves of these family-friendly policies. As long as it’s disproportionately women taking leave or working part time, then it could generate some discrimination against women.

What other aspects of your research show contrasts between the U.S. and other economically advanced countries?

KAHN  We have another line of research on the integration of immigrant women into the U.S. labor market and study the impact of a source country’s characteristics. We find that, in fact, the source country’s cultural characteristics, such as female labor force participation and norms, have a long-lasting effect on the behavior of immigrants and their children in the U.S. However, immigrant women’s behavior becomes more similar to native women’s over time, and second-generation immigrants behave more like U.S. natives, so there’s assimilation as well.

BLAU  One way to think about international comparisons is that they are a little like laboratory experiments. You can learn and get insights about the U.S. by comparing it to other countries. Another line of our research is about the gender pay gap. Surprisingly to us when we started out, the gender pay gap was relatively large in the U.S., compared to a number of other economically advanced countries. We found that labor market institutions and the role of unions were really quite important in explaining this difference. So, it is something we’ve been thinking about for a long time.

If you were to sway legislation relating to “family-friendly” policies in the U.S., where would you focus, based on your research?

BLAU  Child care is very important because, in terms of our research, it enables somebody to continue working. It’s something that we don’t, in my estimation, focus on enough in the legislative arena. There have been proposals for universal preschool that haven’t really seen much traction, but it’s a win-win as it invests in the human capital of the next generation and would also facilitate labor force attachment for parents, especially for moms. So, I think that we should look at extending child care support and providing preschool more widely.

KAHN  Child care doesn’t have the same stigma that the right to ask for a part-time job or the right to take a year off would have in the eyes of the employer. In fact, it might be the opposite If you’re an employer in an area with a strong child care system and there’s a married woman who applies for a job, the company might have the perception that her family will have child care available — so she has the potential of being a really stable employee.

BLAU  I would like to point out that, although there is a downside to the very extended parental leave offered in some other countries, in my opinion, we do too little on this front in the U.S., with only 13 weeks of unpaid leave mandated.