The Fast Track and the Mommy Track
The discrimination that still exists against women in the workplace will be hard to remove and its removal may not lead to any great benefits. But it is worth trying. This is the conclusion of a paper entitled Mommy Tracks and Public Policy: on Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and Gender Gaps in Promotion by two economists from the University of Bergen, Kjell Erik Lommerud and Steinar Vagstad, published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research. ‘The traditional pattern of specialisation, with a bread-winning father and a mother solely working at home, is fading in importance.’ But there still exists a more subtle form of difference where both men and women work ‘but with women choosing working arrangements that are compatible with having the main responsibility for children’.
In essence the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ may emerge in the way employers recruit and place employees. They think they will get more out of a man, because he will not be committed at any time to childcare. Therefore he will be more likely to be placed on a ‘fast track’ in the employment structure of his employer’s organisation.
Today the comparative advantage that used to exist between men and women has almost disappeared. ‘Women’s natural advantage in taking care of small children should apply only for small babies, and physical strength has become less and less important for most jobs.’ Yet this is not reflected in the workplace, where men gain the better jobs.
The two economists examine the workings of the labour market to see if the theory of the ‘mommy track’ [mummy track] is justified. They find that what is happening is that effort is being rewarded at the expense of talent. A man is expected to commit more effort to the employer than is a woman and therefore is likely to be placed on a fast track, while his partner may find herself on a ‘mommy track.’ But they also say that the effects of such outcomes need not be all bad. ‘Self-fulfilling prophecies fulfil a coordination role in that one tends to avoid the situation where one invests in ‘fast-track’ initiation for both partners in a marriage, even though at least one of them will have to spend much time and effort on the upbringing of children.’ And it may be that in some cases effort is more important than talent.
The authors sympathise ‘with the view that women should simply have a right to be judged according to their talents and not by their sex’. But if public policy aims at removing any apparent discrimination, it will face a number of problems. One is that non-discrimination could mean that there are two highly paid parents in a single family, which will tend to increase inequality. Where discrimination exists, ‘the good jobs are distributed according to gender, and gender, in contrast to talent, is evenly distributed across families....’ There are other problems: is it the case that ‘the sexes have different promotion rates just because they are different’? There is a good deal of academic evidence to support the view that men and women are better at different sorts of jobs.
The authors’ analysis shows that if there is to be an effective and efficient anti-discrimination law, it has to be permanent. A one-off ‘announcement’ to fight discrimination will not work. But in the end any public policy in this area is likely to be problematic. That does not, however, mean it should not be tried.
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Kjell Erik Lommerud is Professor of Economics at the University of Bergen, Norway and a Research Fellow in CEPR’s Public Policy research programme. Steinar Vagstad is Professor of Economics at the University of Bergen, Norway.