Labor Economist Betsey Stevenson came to Vassar on Friday, April 21 to give the Economics Department’s annual Crego Lecture. Titled “Our Changing Lives: Work, Family, and Policy in a time of Gender Equality,” the lecture examined the impact of public policy and changing gender roles on the choices we make regarding our family and careers. Past Crego Lectures have featured George Akerlof, Claude Henry, John Taylor and Daron Acemoglu, just to name a few (Vassar College, “Crego Lecture News”).
Empty seats were few and far between in Taylor Hall 203, where the lecture was held. Many students sacrificed comfort, listening to the lecture while sitting on the steps of the crowded lecture hall.
Professor Paul Johnson, Chair of the Economics Department, introduced Stevenson. “The Crego lecture was established by Jean E. Crego in the memory of her father, Martin H. Crego, to bring leading economists to speak at Vassar,” Johnson explained. Stevenson, who is based at the University of Michigan, focuses her research on the economics of public policy and family dynamics, with particular attention to the role of women in the labor market.
In addition to her research, Stevenson has served as the chief economist for the Department of Labor under the Obama administration from 2010 to 2011. In 2013, the administration appointed Stevenson to serve on the White House Council of Economic advisors, a panel of three economists that advises the administration on economic policy.
Stevenson writes as a columnist for Bloomberg View, as well. Some of her most recent articles include, “Believe It or Not, Women Are Doing Better,” “Manly Men Need to Do More Girly Jobs” and “Where Trump Should Look to Cut Costs.”
Stevenson began the lecture by looking at the shifting gender roles and family dynamics over the last century, illustrating the sharp increase of women entering the labor market during that time. “Today the majority of college educated workers are females,” Stevenson announced. “Young women are choosing higher education at much higher rates and outperforming boys.” She had statistics, too: Women’s contribution to family earnings has grown to 45 percent, and is increasingly approaching 50 percent.
“The equality means differences in decisions about men and women’s careers,” Stevenson said.
The lecture echoed Stevenson’s writing, such as her article, “Believe It or Not, Women Are Doing Better,” which reads, “Although stay-at-home dads and breadwinner wives are still minorities, their growing presence is changing people’s expectations about the appropriate roles for men and women … In the workplace, women are more likely to be in positions of leadership. They are now the majority of workers in management, professional, and related occupations—which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given their dominance in higher education” (Bloomberg View, “Believe It or Not, Women Are Doing Better,” 8.26.16).
Next, Stevenson turned to economics to describe the formation of families and the decision to get married. She pointed out three economic advantages to marriage: production complementaries, public goods and consumption complementaries.
According to Stevenson, “The traditional model for marriage comes primarily from production complementaries.” This means that the traditional model for marriage relies on the returns to specialization for the married couple, i.e. couples benefit from one spouse specializing in some form of market-based production—the man working a job—and the other spouse specializing in domestic production—the woman focusing on housework.
Stevenson pointed to three primary causes of the returns to specialization: public policy, technology and trade. “These three things reduced returns of having specialists in the home,” she explained. The advancements in policy, tech and trade minimized the benefits of having a devoted homeworker, a “housewife,” and increased the benefits of both spouses participating in the labor market.
“Laws directly related to employment increased women’s options to work outside of the home,” Stevenson said. She explained that other laws, like the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, indirectly affected women’s opportunities to work. The Act required equal opportunities for women in high school sports, which led to an incredible increase in women playing sports. Stevenson shared data that suggest that people who played high school sports earn 10 percent more than those who don’t.
Technology also played a significant role in the shift. Domestic technologies, like pre-packaged food and household appliances, made it less valuable to be an expert in cooking or sewing. In addition, contraceptive technology became readily available during this period. “Birth control is really important for women’s employment and education,” Stevenson said. She explained that increased availability of birth control gave women opportunities other than staying home and raising a family, and prompted an increase of women pursuing post-secondary education.
The reduction in the cost of tradable goods, such as fabrics, made work in the labor market a plausible substitute for domestic work, which means that the production complementaries of getting married were significantly lessened. Women no longer had to get married to buy goods on the market. Marriage shifted from a production-based decision to a consumption-based decision.
The shift has resulted in marriages of people who are more or less equal producers. Because of this, marriage has become more appealing to those not interested in traditional gender roles. At this point in the lecture, Stevenson stopped to ask the question, “If marriage has changed in a way where there’s more room for equality, what is the role of public policy?”
The answer, it would seem, is to replace policies that reinforced the old model of marriage with those that support the new. Policies currently in place were designed for households in which one person is responsible for life outside of work.
“It’s hard to figure out how to straddle work and family,” Stevenson said. According to Stevenson’s data, 60 percent of men report work-family conflict. As Stevenson pointed out, this type of frustration and pressure can lead to low fertility rates.
A major step in the right direction, according to Stevenson, is a plan for paid maternity leave. She explained that a woman’s decision to leave the labor market for two years to take care of a child can cost much more than two years’ worth of wages.
“To support marriage, policy makers need to reduce stress and make room for joy.” Stevenson emphasized the importance of financial stability, citing workplace flexibility, paid parental leave, workplace training and a higher minimum wage as crucial policies for a stable family life. She made it clear that income problems must first be addressed before policy makers attempt to tackle any so-called “marriage problems.”
Stevenson also advocated for changes in the United States’ tax code. “We incentivize people to do all sorts of strange things in the tax code,” she said. “We need to think about building policies for 2017, not 1977.”
Henry Kunin ’18 commented on the lecture. As a child, Henry heard about the ins and outs of the economy from his father. Currently taking Introduction to Economics, Henry said, “I took the course out of a fascination with the nuances of finance. The lecture addressed concepts already understood by most students, and spoke about trends that are expected across a nearly hundred-year timespan.”